Homage To Oakley
by J. McNaghten.
BMG February/March 1945
LET us now consider the Olly Oakley double-sided Zonophone releases. I fear my list is by no means complete and I would welcome any assistance readers may care to give in the matter of titles, catalogue numbers and dates of releases.
Our first record is "Darktown Dandies" and "Toronto Jig" (445) both with orchestral accompaniment. In the first movement of the "Jig" the drummer in the band follows every note of the melody with. castanets. The same effect is introduced into Winner 2258 - this time with piano instead of orchestra.
"Darktown Dandies" is played at a good speed with a full tone, but the Trio gets badly "cut up" as regards correct time.
"POPPIES AND WHEAT" and "Home, Sweet Home" (446) - with piano accompaniment. I think these must have been two of Oakley’s favourite solos! "Home" is featured as described in last month’s article. "Poppies and Wheat" is rendered true to the score - which is a change, anyway.
"LUMBRIN’ LUKE" and "COLOURED MAJOR" (447) - with piano accompaniment. Strong vibrant tone, clean picking and no "slip-ups". One of Oakley’s best Zonophone discs. Get it at all costs.
"American Patrol" and "FERNBANK QUICKSTEP" (695). Another capital disc. I prefer "Fernbank Quickstep" to the oft-recorded "Oakleigh Quickstep". It seems to be much more melodic. Despite the two "slips" in "American Patrol", it is a pleasing recording.
"FUN IN DAHOMEY" (861). A grand presentation of an early Grimshaw composition. Clear round tone with a robust bass solo. After the fourth movement Oakley begins to play the first movement, but in one beat changes it to the third movement! The reverse side has a concertina solo by Alexander Prince.
"Whistling Nig" and "Dreams of Darkie Land" (937). A typical Oakley disc with his usual strong clear tone. The sostenuto part in "Darkie Land" stands out well. Unfortunately, the "Nig’s" whistle goes dry in places .
"Queen of the Burlesque" and "INSURGENT'S PATROL" (1015). Oakley recorded "Burlesque" at least fifteen times. The harmonics, as usual with Oakley, are perfect. "Insurgent’s" lends itself to his virile style, particularly in the bass movement, If you like "fireworks" with your solos, listen to the cadenza in C which closes the slow movement; its speed will amaze you.
"Coontown Breezes" and "College Rag" (1060). Two little-known solos deserving wider recognition. "Coontown Breezes" may seem a bit stereo-typed, but "College Rag" is a good one.
"Devil-May-Care" and "Sunflower Dance" (1237). The former solo is Oakley’s own composition and is definitely the better side. Note how the first string "sings" in the second movement. The third movement is pure Cammeyer and for this reason takes the gilt off the solo, spoiling its originality. "Sunflower Dance" is exactly to copy, but does not appeal to me as much as Ossman’s Columbia waxing.
We now come to the Cammeyer and Oakley recordings for the Zonophone label, which were:
"MERRIE COMPANY" and "DANCER'S DREAM" (128&).
"MINIATURE THREE" and "CHINESE PATROL" (1340).
"HUMORESQUE" and "HANDY-JACK" (1365).
These duets are perfect examples of the Cammeyer style and give the lie direct to the statement that Olly Oakley could not play with restraint in the true zither-banjo manner. Even in the fast solos (when Oakley played lead) his tone is always pure, soft and sweet.
These records prove one thing—that Cammeyer’s compositions sound complete only when played with an accompanist, either piano or banjo. Played solo, something is lacking. However, that is by the way. I commend every fretted instrumentalist to listen to these discs, which are the peak of musical achievement in recorded banjo music.
Cammeyer’s brilliant "seconds" in "Handy Jack" and "Merrie Company" are unforgettable. "Miniature Three" is my favourite of this batch of discs. The harmonics - particularly that produced at the twelfth fret on the fifth string and the final harmonic chord of twelfth barré and 17th combined - are the piece de resistance and never fail to delight knowledgeable listeners.
Now we come to the H.M.V. discs; the first of which to be considered is "BLACK COQUETTE" and "LANCASHIRE CLOGS" (C236). This is the only 12" banjo record in existence! It is one of Oakley's finest releases. "Black Coquette" is really superb, with clear, musical tone throughout. Get this record by hook or by crook!
"DANSE ARLEQUIN" and "Uncle Johnson" (B136). The former title has "four hands" on the piano and this proves to be too heavy for certain parts of the solo. Nevertheless, Oakley gives a polished and flawless rendering of this Morley gem. "Uncle Johnson" is well and cleanly played throughout.
"The Matador" and "Sweep’s Intermezzo" (B137). The first title has a bright and cheery atmosphere and an introduction reminiscent of "Whistling Nig". The other side, with its graceful intro, reminds me of Cammeyer.
"Oakleigh Quickstep" and "Whistling Rufus" (B138) - with orchestral accompaniment - includes a very noisy drummer who insists on ruining the quickstep and has the last word – BANG! - at the finish. "Whistling Rufus", although not perfect, is neat and well-behaved.
"UNDER THE DOUBLE EAGLE" and "Menuet" (B140). Oakley right, at the top of his form!
"Darktown Dandies" and "Toronto Jig" (B141). This is a re-issue of the Zonophone record mentioned above. It reappeared later on H.M.V. B1507.
"Coconut Dance" and "Jolly Boys" (B142). "Coconut Dance" comes out very well on this copy, which sounds neater than the Columbia issue by Fred van Eps. Oakley introduces some novel elaborations at the end of the repeat of the first movement. "Jolly Boys" lives up to its title. THE Edison Bell Phonograph Co. - which had sponsored so many recordings by Olly Oakley in the early cylinder days - gave him a considerable share of its catalogue space and because of their undoubted popularity his recordings were regular features in the "Winner" lists. The best of these remained as "steady sellers" for many years and it was not until about 1930 that the last of them were deleted from the Edison Bell index.
Among the early copies are several outstanding solos, but there are also a few "duds" in the selection usually on the reverse side of an excellent presentation. However, here are the titles of some of his most popular "Winner" releases:
"DARKEY'S AWAKENING" (Lansing) and "A DUSKY BELLE" (Grimshaw) 2086.
"Queen of. the Burlesque " (Tilley) and "TORCHLIGHT PARADE" (Morley) 2110.
"RAGTIME MEDLEY" (With vocal) and "THE BUSKERS" (Descriptive) 2124.
"SPIRIT OF THE GLEN" (Hurst-Oakley) and "Stay in Your Own Backyard" (Vocal, with banjo accompaniment).
"MISTER JOLLYBOY" (Grimshaw) .and "Toronto Jig" (Sullivan) 2258.
"CAMPTOWN CARNIVAL" (Morley) and "Nigger in a Fit" (Morley-Rogers) 2282.
"HUSARENRITT " (Spindler) and "A Banjo Oddity" (Morley) 2405.
"HOME, SWEET HOME" (Bishop) and. "MENUET" (Paderewski) 2440 (Black Label).
"HOME, SWEET HOME" (Bishop) and "MENUET" (Padetewski) 2440 (Red Label).
"Meddlesome Medley" in two parts. (Arr. Oakley) 3135.
Lansing's famous solo "The Darkey's Awakening" was written as a sequel to "The Darkey’s Dream" and is definitely a much better, more melodious solo than the earlier composition. Oakley gives full expression to the slow introduction, which he plays mainly in four-note chords - well suited to the "elevated bass" style. There is a sonority and a rich, ringing quality in the tone of this record which compelled me, as a non-player, listening to my first-banjo solo, to learn to play and love the instrument. I shall always be grateful to Olly Oakley for that alone, and I am sure there must be many more who could echo my words.
"Dusky Belle" has a style very similar to "Darkey’s Awakening"; having a slow introduction (note the quality of the harmonics!) and three bright movements in contrast, Oakley introduces the "vellum tap" effectively on both sides of this fine record.
"Queen of the Burlesque" is so well known to banjoists and enthusiasts that comments are superfluous. Still, I think a word of praise is due to Oakley for the "build up" he gave to this evergreen solo. He adds a short "fill-in" after the low G in the fourth bar of the first movement; the addition begins on the octave string and descends on the first string, thus :
Fsharp, F, E, open D. It reoccurs after the fourth bar in the second movement. To improve the phrasing of the harmonic movement, Oakley plays an extra harmonic G (17th fret) in the first bar, then adds an extra harmonic A (in the second bar). He varied this idea later by playing the octave harmonic (17th fret) instead of this added A.
In the fourth bar of the Trio he plays the melody in triplets by substituting triplets E, F, E and D, E, D on the first string. No one could play this solo quite like Oakley and he always made good records of it.
"Torchlight Parade" is full of clear, strong tone and clean picking.
"Ragtime Medley" is not the Ossman arrangement with the same title; half of Oakley’s record being occupied by baritone Stanley Kirby. Before the vocal, Oakley gives us a neat version of "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" in C, modulating into G for the second song. Back we go to C for the final tune; first played by Oakley (solo) then sung by Kirby with the banjo as accompaniment. "The Buskers" is a comical little sketch (written by Ed. Hesse - who later collaborated with Oakley in the composition of "Sweet Jasmine"), Oakley, Victor Opfernan and Stanley Kirby form the cast and we hear their voices in the amusing preamble to the playing of "In the Shadows" by Opferman (violin) and Oakley, who give a very sound performance. I like the naive humour of this "descriptive" (as it is called) and the players, too, seem to be really enjoying the whole thing.
"Spirit of the Glen" is a graceful dance somewhat "Cammeyerish" in style and quite pleasing. The singing tone of the first string, even in the highest positions, is characteristic of Oakley's zither-banjo.
"Stay in Your Own Backyard" is a negro song by Stanley Kirby with Oakley providing the accompaniment. "Mister Jollyboy" is a melodious solo with an expressive first movement in 12/8 tempo which should be played somewhat slower than Oakley’s treatment suggests. The tone on this record is not up to Oakley’s usual standard.
"Toronto Jig" does not differ from the Zonophone edition previously mentioned in this series except in the castanet accompaniment - which is quieter.
"Camptown Carnival" is the better side of No. 2282. "Nigger in a Fit" does not approach it - though the tone of both solos is strong and clear.
Fritz Spindler’s piano solo "Husarenritt" was arranged by Oakley and he often played it publicly as it makes an excellent concert solo. The reverse side of this disc seems a bit "rushed" and I prefer George Morris’ Decca issue of "A Banjo Oddity".
"Home Sweet Home" has Victor Opferman (violinist) sharing honours with Oakley. The Black Label issue, with a tasteful introduction in which the banjoist employs a fine bass vibrato and some neat harmonics, is the better copy. The banjo part is exactly like the Zonophone edition, i.e., theme and three variations, one of these is in duet form with Opferman playing melody whilst Oakley plucks the three lower strings of the banjo in accompaniment.
Paderewski’s "Menuet" is notable for good clear tone and a nice vibrato in the introduction. The rapidamente is taken by Opferman and the turns and trills in the banjo part are skilfully performed. The Red Label issue is almost identical except for the version of the introduction to "Home Sweet Home", but the "turns" in the "Menuet" are not nearly so well executed.
NOT VERY EXCITING
"Meddlesome Medley" is a not very exciting collection of some of Francis, Day and Hunter’s ragtime songs of the day. Frankly, I was disappointed with this disc as the arrangement is elementary and makes no use of the bass.
Before we leave the Edison Bell section I must mention one of their later makes, known as "Radio" 8" records. No. 1263 is a "Darktown Minstrel Show" in which Olly Oakley is "Massa Pete", playing the first and second movements of "Tony"; which was then unpublished. It is real banjo playing! Oakley also "speaks his name" on this disc, making it doubly interesting.