Homage To Oakley
by J. McNaghten.
BMG January 1945
With the passing of Olly Oakley we lost the most prolific recording banjoist of all time. Oakley is dead... but his work lives on in the hundreds of discs made by him during forty years of work distributed amongst almost every recording company in the Kingdom.
To give fitting tribute to the many hundreds of releases bearing his name would require a volume of "B.M.G", so in the compass of this article I will endeavour only to touch on the "highlights" of the Maestro’s career "on wax".
Among the five hundred odd issues it is easy to lose oneself, and there will be many readers who may treasure an Oakley record which has never come within my ken. I possess a mere fifty of his "platters", but, through the kindness of my old friend, "Alauris", I have been able to listen enraptured to dozens of otherwise inaccessible copies of Oakley records - now long deleted from the record catalogues.
It is about these, therefore, that I would enthuse and if, in doing so, I help at least some of his admirers to a fuller appreciation of his achievements I shall be well pleased.
Regarding Oakley’s "achievements", let us not cite him as infallible. He was not (and would have been the first to admit it), but because his playing was not always faultless, this very human aspect of his style served mainly to endear him to his following - which was, and is, an extremely large and faithful one.
There are two points in his happy-go-lucky presentations on which some critics have seized: His trick of "quickening up" the tempo of a solo without warning, and his tendency to "lose" a movement in the middle of a bar. Happily, these were only occasional faults, but I agree they are conspicuous in some of his most famous releases. Strangely enough, his devotees promptly took the opposite view in these instances, saying: "It just goes to prove that Oakley is one of us. He gives us examples of superhuman skill; lifts us to the heights and then brings us back to earth a moment later with a slipped note or a lapse of memory."
There are many who will maintain that in his jolly, carefree approach to recording Oakley had the right attitude - that the banjo, being regarded as the happy-go-lucky comedian of instruments, was best featured in such a way. Whatever the views and opinions Oakley aroused, there is little doubt that his banjo brought enjoyment to a huge throng of players and non-players. There is no doubt, too, that his records sold in thousands to the man-in-the-street and this, to many, was the ultimate proof of his popularity.
Most of us know that Olly Oakley began recording (at the age of seventeen) with the Edison Phonograph Co.; that he continued until 1894 (when flat discs replaced the cylinders); and that he recorded steadily through the years until the issue of his last discs by Parlophone in 1933 by which time the dreaded rheumatoid arthritis had seized his agile fingers in a relentless grip and marked for his followers the end of an epoch.
The fact that the majority of Oakley’s recordings were "just passable" is doubly regretted when we reflect that it was well within his power to have perfected any of his solos.
Disregarding this, let us consider here the "pick of the bunch" - the cream of Oakley’s output - and find solace in these vibrant mementos of the beloved maestro. (Every title, which seems to me to be outstanding is printed in capital letters - marking them "collectors’ pieces" - and I would advise every banjoist to look out for these in particular and treasure whatever he has the good fortune to find.)
After his phonograph cylinders I believe Oakley’s first flat discs were his "Gramophone Concert" issues - released by the predecessors of the H.M.V. Co.
They were all, I think, single-sided and displayed some of his best work. The first of these to my knowledge was a 7" single-sided record featuring Cullen’s "TWIN STAR MARCH" (G.C.6341), which has a fine bass solo in the second movement.
His next pressings were in the standard 10" size, and were numbered and titled as follows:
G.C.6352 "Narcissus" (Nevin).
G.C.6358 "Columbian March" (Eno)
G.C.6371 "Harvest Barn Dance"
G.C.6391 "In the Moonlight"
G.C.6456 "En Avant" (Cammeyer)
G.C.6462 "Fusilier Patrol"
G.C.6467 "Bolero" (Cammeyer)
G.C.6471 "Ethiopian Carnival"
"NARCISSUS" has a full round tone, particularly on the bass string. There is a fine short cadenza before the repeat of the first movement - and it is a joy to hear. I am afraid some players will dislike his treatment of the ritard before the third movement.
"COLUMBIAN MARCH" has a bright first movement, with good bass, and contains some neat "doubling" of the accompanying chords vs. the Trio. The second movement reminds me of "American Patrol".
"HARVEST BARN DANCE" is another solo with the bass string well in evidence, both in the first and third movements.
"In the Moonlight" is a 6/8 march which failed to impress me on a first (and only) hearing.
"EN AVANT" is, of course, "Insurgents Patrol" (as recorded later on Zonophone), except for the cadenza, which Oakley inserted as a Coda to the latter version.
BEST PATROL EXAMPLE
"FUSILIER PATROL" is the best example of the patrol in banjo music ever recorded. Beginning with four bars in artificial harmonics (played pppp) it gains a gradual crescendo to fff, returning to end in the harmonics which began it. This record is definitely one for the connoisseur.
"BOLERO—CAMMEYER" is how this one is labeled (in huge black letters), and it is one of Oakley’s rarest gems. He plays the introductory bars an octave higher than indicated in the copy, and his extremely rapid descending runs are a sheer delight. The harmonics are crystal clear - remember these are pre-electric recordings - and the whole effect is masterly. If I remember rightly, he omits the cadenza.
"Ethiopian Carnival" is a ragtime number, with a first movement reminiscent of "Coloured Major".
Oakley’s next single-sided records were released under the green Zonophone label. Many of them were later "paired off" by the same company when double-sided discs became the "selling order" of the day. One of the first of these discs was "EL CAPITAN" (X.46276), and the label tells us, strangely enough, that Oakley’s instrument is a Giant Banjo! This famous Sousa march made one of Oakley’s most perfect solos. With a strong, forceful tone he surpassed Ossman on his own ground and gave us a jewel to remember him by.
"ANONA" (X.46260) appears to be his earliest "single-sider" for Zonophone. It is a neat, restrained piece.
"Gondolier Two Step" was first issued as Zono X.46271. Later it was reissued on Zono 2346.
"HOME SWEET HOME" (X.46266) was the first version recorded by Oakley, and it was later paired by Zonophone with his "Marche de Concert". In the meantime, he had recorded the same arrangement for Edison Bell Winner (No. 2440). Then Zonophone again paired it - this time with the irrepressible "Poppies and Wheat" (No. 446). This last edition had piano accompaniment in place of the orchestra of earlier days.
(Winner’s issue was backed by "Paderewski’s Minuet", in which Oakley shared honours with Victor Opferman (violin). Although it was issued twice by Winner - first on their Black Label and then on their Red Label; each with the same catalogue number (2440) - the matrix numbers were different, viz. Black, 814; Red, 3042. The shuffling and reshuffling of many of the matrix numbers on Oakley’s records must be a trying problem to those enthusiastic collectors who want to trace his discs in chronological order.)
To return to the solo. With one exception - the Black Label Winner - the "Home" is identical, being theme and three variations thus: Theme, in four-note chords. First variation, in thirds with a swinging accompaniment on the bass strings. Second variation, elaboration of melody on first and second strings, with accompaniment on third and fourth strings. Third variation, sostenuto. The Winner issue (Black Label) has a very fine introduction in which Oakley employs harmonics and a grand vibrato. Otherwise the theme and variations are unchanged. The latter disc, therefore, is the one to acquire.
"LA MATTCHICHE" (X.46269) is perhaps better known to banjoists as "Sorrella" (arr. Morley), and is a really grand solo - as this single-sided disc proves.
"Royal Trumpeters" (X.46277) and "Frivolity" (X1462357) are the last of the single-sided discs. Compare "Frivolity" with John Pidoux’s pressing - the two are almost identical!