Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 3: Al Bernard

Before proceeding any further with this new entry in the Unsung Vocalists series, I feel that this article requires a brief personal introduction. Part of my wife's family hails from the southern Missouri town of Charleston (yes, that area of the country where people say "Missourah") and upon my first visit with her grandmother's sister, Mrs. Sally Winchester, I could not help but notice that in the den of her house she had a framed original copy of the sheet music for a song entitled "Blue-Eyed Sally," doubtless because the protagonist of that song is Mrs. Winchester's namesake. Due to the fact that a family reunion is held every other year in Charleston, I have set foot in her house many times and have always enjoyed inspecting the cover of that sheet music. Now that Mrs. Winchester has moved into a nursing home not too far from where her old house stands, my wife, Erin, and our baby daughter, Libby, recently had the chance to visit with her, and one of the first things that I observed when I entered her room at the nursing home was that, among the many pictures of several close and distant relatives that hang on the walls, there was still that frame with the sheet music for "Blue-Eyed Sally."

The song was penned by the songwriting team of Al Bernard and J. Russel Robinson and published in 1924 by Henry Waterson, Inc., of New York. Robinson composed the music and Bernard came up with the lyrics, and according to Brian Rust's Complete Entertainment Discography, the two of them recorded it as the Dixie Stars in New York City on December 30, 1924, a vocal duet with piano accompaniment by Robinson. There apparently is also a version by the Dixie Stars released on Brunswick (2689) as a "vocal duet with orchestra," and the popularity of the song ensured that it was covered by several dance bands, including a delightful reading by Ted Weems in 1924, way before Perry Como became the band's male vocalist, and one by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, among many others. In my opinion, one of the best instrumental recordings came courtesy of the legendary California Ramblers, who cut at least two different versions of the song, one in 1924 and another in 1925, with a lineup featuring jazz greats such as Jimmy Dorsey, Adrian Rollini, and Irving Brodsky.

Al Bernard, whose complete name was Alfred A. Bernard, had been born in New Orleans in 1887 or 1888, and even though he was a fairly popular vaudeville performer often billed as "the boy from Dixie," his recording career would not begin until 1919. Bernard seemed to specialize in songs that included the word blues in their title, even though those songs usually had very few, if any, blues elements. It is true, however, that he was one of the first singers to record compositions by W.C. Handy, such as "Memphis Blues" and a 1919 version of "St. Louis Blues," and he often sang vocal refrains on records by popular jazz bands of the day, like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Bennie Krueger Orchestra.

In his highly recommended book Popular American Recording Pioneers 1895-1925, Tim Gracyk devotes several pages to Bernard, noting that "he was the first to cut 'Frankie and Johnny' successfully for an American record company." This song, inspired by a real murder committed in St. Louis around the turn of the century, was extremely influential, would enter the repertoire of several blues and country artists, and would in time be recorded by virtually everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to Mississippi John Hurt to Bob Dylan, and even Elvis Presley would star in a forgettable 1966 movie based on its story. Throughout his rather long career, Bernard proved to be extremely versatile both as a singer and as a songwriter, recording with duet partners such as Ernest Hare and pioneering country artist Vernon Dalhart and even writing tunes occasionally with Jimmy Durante. The excellent "Sam Jones Blues," one of the songs that, like "Blue-Eyed Sally," he penned with J. Russel Robinson, was cut by Bessie Smith in 1923, and his 1919 recording of "Hesitation Blues" is one of the first commercial waxings of this oft-recorded song that would have a profound influence on western swing bands such as that led by Milton Brown in the 1930s. (Incidentally, the Light Crust Doughboys, a popular western swing outfit, also included a version of "Blue-Eyed Sally" in one of their sessions for Vocalion in 1938.)

A newspaper ad for a personal appearance by Bernard and Robinson that mentions "Blue-Eyed Sally"

Bernard's versatility is amply demonstrated on the several recordings that he made for Grey Gull beginning in the mid-1920s, a series of releases on which he dabbles in many different styles, including even some spoken comedy skits, Toward the end of his life, Bernard gave up his recording activities and moved to New York City, where he passed away in March of 1949, aged sixty. Gracyk aptly sums up his most important contribution to American popular music thus: "In popularizing songs with 'blues' in the title, especially W.C. Handy numbers that would eventually be recognized as classics, he was a pioneering artist." Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, not a single compilation of his music has been released on CD at the time of this writing, which is really a pity if we bear in mind the consistently high quality of most of his recorded legacy. As for me, besides his undeniable importance as a recording pioneer, Bernard and his music—and particularly his self-penned hit "Blue-Eyed Sally"—will always be linked, whether she knows it or not, to Mrs. Sally Winchester of Charleston, Mo.

Here is Ted Weems's dance-band version of Al Bernard's "Blue-Eyed Sally," recorded in 1924:

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