by George Blau This is a preliminary draft: 6-25-02
Information has been collected from many sources. First and foremost is Art Gillham himself. A family friend, he entertained me and his friends with his playing in our home and in his home. He endured a pesky kid who was always asking him to just play piano and not sing. Through conversations and though his generosity in loaning me his scrapbook full of newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, advertising, and sheet music, and in permitting me to photograph everything in his scrapbook and to tape record him just playing piano. The lack of more detailed information from Art was due to my age and lack of interest at the time of the details of his career and lack of knowledge to ask the questions I would ask today. Ab Luther, who bought a 78 rpm home recorder and made many acetate disks of Art in the 1940s and 1950s and made tapes for me of all the home recordings he had. Joe Renfroe, who made several tape recordings of Art in the 1950s and made copies for me. Jeff Tarrer, who made the only known recorded interview with Art and made a copy for me. Russ Conner, and Woody Backensto in suggesting the personnel on Art's recordings.
Mike Montgomery for finding Art's piano rolls and sheet music by Art or with Art's picture on the cover.
Wendell Hall for writing his recollections of his association with Art in Chicago, on the road, on radio and songwriting. W. C. Handy who corresponded with me concerning Hesitation Blues. Ted Browne who answered a few questions about Art and his work for Ted Browne Music. Art's grandsons Stephen and Phil Gillham, and their cousin Herb Gillham, who shared information on Art's first wife and his family history. Brian Rust for permitting me to use his discographical information on dates, matrix numbers and released and unreleased recordings. Tim Gracyk who compiled pages from the Talking Machine World which gave release dates and other information. Richard Zimmerman who identified Art's style of playing as influenced by St. Louis ragtime. Ian Whitcomb and Dick Carty who identified Art's vocalizations as one of the first crooners. David Cowart whose research and questions on Hesitation Blues and interest in the song writing career of Art and Billy Smythe stimulated more thought to the Smythe-Gillham association.
I first met Art Gillham when I was a child in Atlanta in the mid-1940's. He was a friend of my parents and we were together frequently on weekends. My mother had been a fan of Art's when she was in high school in the 1920's. My father and Art were both members of the Buckhead Elks Club in Atlanta, and I presume that is where they met.
At the time, Art lived in an apartment in Atlanta's Peachtree Hills. He owned several acres of land on Burdett Rd, a dirt road off Lake Forrest. There was nothing on the land except for an outhouse and a small storage house. Art had setup a shooting range with targets. My father was an architect and in the late 1940's, Art had him build his house in the woods, which he called Wee-Haven. His property was way out in the 1950's, but is today in the Sandy Springs area inside I-285, which is now considered "close-in" Atlanta. Whether at his home or ours, whenever we were together, Art was sure to play the piano. When I became a teenager, I learned that Art had made records for Columbia in the 1920's. He made some home acetate records for me and for my parents. Later let me tape record him playing. He showed me his scrapbook and allowed me to borrow it to make photos of the pages, gave me his manuscript for Angry. He did not have any of his records, so my hobby of collecting records began in trying to find his old Columbia records. His recordings had been popular enough that it did not take long to find all of his American released Columbia's, his one Bluebird, and a few on other labels. In the 1950's, most of these were readily found at Salvation Army stores or Goodwill stores. Most were in poor condition from frequent playing on the old phonographs with heavy stylus arms that dug into the grooves. As better copies were found, the worn out records were discarded. Some better condition records were acquired from 78rpm collector stores in New York and Los Angeles.
Art was a frequent guest on WAGA-TV's Saturday night Arthur Murray Dance Party, and always took me along. Being in the early 1950's, this was pioneer television in Atlanta. Being before videotape, the program was broadcast live. Through his scrapbook I learned he had been involved in the first demonstration of television in Atlanta in 1939.
When he had his final radio series on Atlanta's WQXI on Sunday afternoons, I was in the studio with him. In 1953 I was doing a series of feature articles for my high school newspaper when Gene Austin came to play the Paradise Room at the Henry Grady Hotel. I contacted Gene and he invited me to lunch. Also with us at lunch was a local performer, one the Merry Mutes, a pantomime team, Dick Van Dyke. Gene invited me for a second more private lunch and told me of his career and the music of the 1920's. Gene was very gracious to a teenager who knew very little about him except that he recorded for Victor at the time Art recorded for Columbia. After talking with Gene, I got the idea that it would be great to have Art and Gene together to talk about their careers in the 1920's. I approached Art with the idea and he was receptive, so I talked to Gene and he was also receptive. As a result, Gene appeared on Art's Sunday afternoon program. Art let Gene do most of the singing and playing and they talked about their relationship and careers with Victor and Columbia. Both men were pianists who sang. Gene had the better voice. Art was better on piano. Gene sang songs straight. Art created a character who was old, fat, baldheaded, needing a cup of coffee, who was always down on his luck with women and talked to his fingers about "the customers" as he sang.
Art had some friends who had home recording equipment. Before tape recording there were home disk recorders that recorded on acetate disks. Art made many records for his friends on those acetate disks. When tape recorders came out his friends upgraded to tape and he recorded hours of songs, memories, and risqué material. I borrowed a tape recorder and asked him to play without singing and he complied playing for about an hour of his songs and other familiar songs of the twenties with his theme songWhisperingplayed as a bridge between songs.He accommodated me in other ways, such as playing for my high school friends campaign party for senior class officers. As I look back, I am surprised that he did not take offense at my wanting him to play piano and not sing.
In the 1950's, Art had several heart attacks which affected his left arm and he was not able to play piano as much as he would have liked. On June 6, 1961 Art awoke, and as he was getting out of bed he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was buried on a hill at Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs. His wife, Gertrude, continued living at Wee-Haven until about 1980 when she went to North Carolina and lived with Art's son Hal. When Gertrude died, she was cremated and her ashes buried next to Art at Arlington Cemetery.
After Art died I began contacting his friends who had made those home recordings. I was able to get tape copies of all the surviving home recordings. In 1957, Jim Walsh wrote an article on Art and his recordings for his long running series "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists" which appeared in the September issue of Hobbies Magazine. It was the first time I knew of the extent of his recording career. Shortly after the Hobbies Magazine article, Russ Connor's first bio-discography of Benny Goodman was published showing that the young Benny Goodman was part of the personnel on the July 24, 1930 session that produced Confessin'. Woody Backensto, an authority on Red Nichols, contacted Art about his recordings with Red Nichols. He wrote an article which expanded on Jim Walsh's article by giving recording dates, matrix numbers and suggestions as to personnel on Art's recordings. The article was published after Art's death in Record Research 49 in March, 1963. He had Red Nichols and others listen to the records to confirm their presence. Later discography books by Brian Rust gave additional information on Art's recordings: Jazz Records 1897-1942; The Complete Entertainment Discography From 1897 to 1942; The Columbia Master Book Discography, Volume III, Principal U.S. Master Series 1924-1934. Also, Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Roger D. Kinkle contains an article on Art. In my search for Art's player piano rolls, Michael Montgomery was very helpful, as he was in finding sheet music either written by Art or with Art's picture featured. All of these sources were used in addition to my collection of Art's recordings, piano rolls, sheet music, conversations with Art, and material he allowed me to photograph and copy from his scrapbook, in compiling this bio-discography.
The records I collected were transferred to reel-to-reel tape at 7.5 inches per second. Later when VCR's came out with Hi Fi recording, the reel-to-reel tapes were transferred to VCR tapes. Then when computers allowed home recording of compact disks, the tapes were transferred to the computer as .WAV files, processed to remove the tape hiss and recorded on compact disks. The commercial recordings for Pathe, Columbia, Bluebird and the Allied transcriptions take up 6 CDs. The home recordings, audition records and interview take up another 8 CDs. All of the recordings were also converted to mp3 files and were posted on the Internet news group alt. binaries.sounds.78rpm-era.
WAITING FOR SHIPS THAT NEVER COME IN
THE CAREER OF
THE WHISPERING PIANIST
Hard Luck Image
To the confidential tones of Whispering is added a melancholy voice, "Tantalize the ivories fingers, while Papa goes out to get himself a cup of coffee." During the 1920's and 1930's radio and record listeners would recognize this as a trademark of Art Gillham, The Whispering Pianist. Singing and talking in a whispering style, the sob song was his forte. On radio and records he would moan about his bad luck, how his girl had left him, or how he was "waiting for ships that never come in." - the title of one of his most popular records. In one sense his career image paralleled his real experiences. His ship never did come in, though it seemed to be in sight on the horizon. He was a popular artist of his day, but did not gain the remembrance of his contempories Gene Austin, Ruth Etting, Cliff Edwards or Nick Lucas, or even of Jack Smith who Victor dubbed the “Whispering Baritone” after Art was established as the Whispering Pianist. His tunes were catchy, but did not linger to be remembered, except Hesitation Blues which contemporary publications omit his name. He was a pioneer radio artists appearing personally on over 300 stations prior to networks, was on the 1924 election night broadcast with Will Rogers, was on CBS during the Depression with his Syncopated Pessimism, yet his name is not found in books on the history of early radio. He recorded as an Exclusive Artist for Columbia Records from 1924-1931 and made the first released masters using the new Western Electric electrical recording system, but appears forgotten when Sony, now owners of what was Columbia Records, produced an extensive set of historical recordings the first electrical recordings were not included.
He created a character image on radio and on records. He described himself as an old man, balding and fat enough to tip the scales at 376 pounds. He was a tall, slim young man with ample curly black hair who weighed 175. He would talk to himself on radio and records, especially to his fingers - "Come on fingers, play it pretty for the people...easy fingers, just a little bounce." He would end his radio programs with a mention of coffee - "Well, Papa is going to go out and get a cup of coffee now. Do you have a cup of coffee in your pocket?” a phrase so well known that an envelope addressed simply “Have you Got a Cup of Coffee in Your Pocket, New York, New York” was delivered to him at CBS.
Beginnings in Atlanta and St. Louis
Art Gillham was born on January 1, 1895. Art said his family had moved to Atlanta from Texas earlier, where his father is said to have been a Texas Ranger. The Atlanta City Directory for 1890 shows George Gillham, carpenter, residing at 916 Lynch St. Art believed he was born in Atlanta, but late in his life he discovered his mother had gone to St. Louis on a visit and he was actually born there. Art said he and his parents, Ada and George Gillham, spent his first nine years in Atlanta, where he began music lessons, taught by his mother, before his family moved to St. Louis in 1904. However, school records in St. Louis show he attended Henry Taylor Blow Elementary School from 1901 to 1906, then Wyman Elementary School and entered Central High School in 1910. The school records for Wyman and Central no longer exist. The records from Henry Taylor Blow show his address in 1902 as 6620 S. 8th St and his father is shown as “coach builder” (1903-1905 show him as a carpenter and 1906 as coach carpenter, probably meaning a carpenter who worked on repairing the city’s trolleys). Apparently the street name changed as in 1905 the address is 6620 Idaho Ave. In 1906 the address was 7105 Virginia. The only record existing from Wyman Elementary School shows an address of 3623 Folsom in 1910 as does the only card existing from Central High School. There are two cards marked “graduate”. One is Wyman Elementary School. The other is a reference to pages 131 and 277 in Book 28 and is marked “HS-1”. Book 28 no longer exists, but presumably the “HS-1” refers to high school.
In St Louis, his mother, Ada Lewis Gillham, was, it was said, a well known pianist vocalist. Art was influenced by the St. Louis ragtime style of piano. He had a dance band while in high school. Art developed a friendship with Billy Smythe, who was a few years older than Art. Art's father wanted him to study medicine and Art enrolled in St Louis University. But in 1914, after two weeks of being a college student, a traveling orchestra came to St. Louis, and he left school and went with Billy Smythe and Smythe’s friend and future brother-in-law, Scott Middleton, to play in the dance band. He wrote his parents from Denver to let them know he was pianist in an orchestra.
Art began writing songs in his teen years. In St. Louis he met and was friends with Billy Smythe, who also played piano and may have been a song plugger for St. Louis music publishers. Together with Billy’s friend and future brother-in-law, Scott Middleton, they made up lyrics to an old Black folk song or hymn. What resulted is Hesitation Blues. Billy Smythe and Scott Middleton appear to have gone with Art to California.Not being financially successful in California, by 1915 they returned to the Midwest and went their separate ways. Art went to St. Louis, Chicago and New York while Billy went to Louisville, Kentucky and began publishing music, one in 1915 being the song they had been playing around with on the road: Hesitation Blues but crediting only Billy Smythe and Scott Middleton as writers. The same year, W.C. Handy published a similar song, Hesitating Blues. Both were based on the same folk song or hymn. W.C. Handy acknowledged the two songs were independently written. A rift developed between Art and Billy over the omission of Art’s name. The rift in their friendship lasted about seven years when Art’s name was connected to the song. By 1921 they settled their differences and began writing other songs as a team. Their early songs, Mean Blues and The Deacon Told Me I Was Good, carried the slogan “By writers of the original Hesitation Blues.” “The original” Hesitation Blues was re-published in 1926 by Mills Music crediting Smythe-Middleton-Gillham. Something strange happened with the Mills Music publication – it apparently was never recorded in the copyright office, though the sheet music states “copyright 1926”. In the late 1930’s, after Art and Billy again went their separate ways, Billy Smythe and Scott Middleton sold their rights to Hesitation Blues to Edwin Morris Music. As a consequence, all further publication of Hesitation Blues again omits Art’s name from the credits. Because it did not show up in copyright searches, Morris was unaware of the 1926 Mills Music edition and of Art’s role in Hesitation Blues. Jack Mills Music properties were sold to EMI Music. The tune invites making up of lyrics. As the tune can be considered as traditional, various versions of Hesitation Blues containing the name of the recording artist as composer, exclude the names of Smythe, Middleton, Handy and Gillham. Art claimed he was first to make up the lines “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, show me a man (Woman) a woman (man) can trust” and “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d swim to the bottom and never come up. The “ashes to ashes” line appears in the 1926 Mills edition, but not in the 1915 Smythe edition, nor in W.C. Handy’s edition of Hesitating Blues.
According to news articles about them in the 1930’s, Art Gillham and Billy Smythe wrote over 100 songs together, mentioning Hesitation Blues as their first joint work beginning as early as 1912. Not all were published. Art recorded most of their published songs, the last being in 1934 which he recorded for Victor’s Bluebird label.
Art also wrote songs with Wendell Hall, J. Russell Robinson and Segar Ellis among others.
World War One
In New York Art was a song plugger and studied music with Ernest E. Brambach. Art entered the Army in July 1918 was assigned to Officer’s Training School at Fort Gordon, GA, and assigned to a singing group that performed at Theodore Roosevelt’s last public appearance, then received an honorable discharge in November, 1918 a few weeks after the war’s end.
After the war, Art met, Louisa Canada, his first wife in a theatre in Scranton, PA. She was a singer in the San Carlos Opera Company. She appeared in vaudeville as "Delores Valesco" with Art accompanying her on piano. They married in 1919 and soon had two boys. Art returned to the West Coast in 1919 and led a small group called Art Gillham And His Society Syncopators and was music director for film actress Bebe Daniels’ tour.
Ted Browne Music - Beginnings In Radio
Art probably began his association with Ted Browne during his teen years in St. Louis. Ted Browne, born Fred Brownold on April 23, 1880 in Iowa, was a St. Louis songwriter and publisher until he moved to Chicago and formed a partnership with Charles Harrison. About 1920, Art returned to Chicago and bought an interest in Ted Browne Music. He was named Sales Manager and worked as a song plugger for the company. He traveled around the country plugging songs on the Keith and the Publix circuits and in dime stores and music stores. As a song plugger he played solo piano or accompanied singers. When radio began in 1922, he began appearing on the local Chicago radio station at the Drake Hotel to play The Browne Music songs as solo piano or accompanying singers, one of whom was his wife. At WDAP, in Chicago, he was dared to sing on radio in December, 1923. Not being a singer, he took the challenge and sang in a quiet manner. Reportedly his singing was so soft that it could barely be heard in the studio, but there was immediate positive response from listeners. In February, 1924, he appeared on WSB in Atlanta. Lambdin Kay, WSB program director, was also the radio columnist for the Atlanta Journal. He featured Art's photo with the caption "Whispering Pianist". Art continued to use that as his billing throughout his career. Though he never recorded it, he used Whispering as his theme song on radio and personal appearances. Ted Browne died in November, 1969 in Chicago.
From his popularity as a radio performer, he began his recording career by 1924. An article in the AtlantaJournal in February, 1924 states he had made phonograph records, but no information about them has been found. Perhaps he made some recordings for a small label either on the west coast or in Chicago, but no such recordings have been found.
On May 2, 1924, his first known recording session was with Gennett in Richmond, Indiana. As Art Gillham, The Whispering Pianist, he recorded four of his own compositions. None were released.
In early October, 1924 Art was in New York. He sent telegrams to the major record companies telling of his radio following and invited the recording directors to listen to him on radio while he was in New York. He was contacted by Pathe and recorded two songs. The Pathe songs were issued on Pathe, Perfect, Starr Gennett, Ajax and Apex labels. Some of those recordings were issued under the pseudonym "Fred Thomas", possibly after he began recording as an Exclusive Artist for Columbia. His first known recording to be released was issued in December, 1924. He was also contacted by Arthur Berg of Okeh. Art recalled making some recordings for Okeh, but no record of a recording session has been found.
Art was also contacted by Frank Walker of Columbia Records and was signed as an Exclusive Artist. On October 22, 1924 he began recording for Columbia Records with the aptly titled How Do You Do. The song was one he was plugging for Ted Browne. It later became the theme of Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, "The Happiness Boys". Art's recording was made using the acoustical horn. Two days later, Columbia made its first session of electrical recordings by Paul Specht and His Orchestra with seven takes, none of which were released. Brian Rust's Columbia Masters Discography, Vol. 3 (1924-1934) indicates these were not made using the Western Electric system that Columbia later used. Columbia's next electrical recording session was February 25, 1925 with Art Gillham.
Wendell Hall – Eveready Hour – 1924 Election Night Broadcast
Art and Wendell Hall first met in Chicago. They both were song pluggers for Chicago music publishers. Wendell and Art became friends. They each traveled plugging songs and frequently were in the same town at the same time. Wendell recalled that he and his wife were eating in a top restaurant when his wife said, "Here comes Art Gillham!" Wendell turned to look. Art was not there, but when he turned back around his wife had taken his steak. Art appeared on Wendell's radio programs, The Eveready Hour, and The Majestic Hour, several times. Art and Wendell wrote a song together, I'm Just A Rollin' Stone. When I asked Wendell about it he said he was mad at Art because Art promised to record it but never did. I told him Art had recorded it and Columbia did release it, but on Columbia's "Race" label under the name "Barrel-house Pete". Wendell Hall wrote many songs, the most popular being It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'.
On November 4, 1924 Art was one of the entertainers on the WEAF election night program which was a "hookup" of 18 stations, a precursor of network broadcasting. The program was the Eveready Hour, sponsored by the National Carbon Company, which broadcast each Tuesday evening over WEAF. The other entertainers were Will Rogers, Wendell Hall "The Red Headed Music Maker", Carson Robison, and the Everyready Quartet. The Waldorf-Astoria Dance Orchestra was led by Joseph Knecht. Graham McNamee announced the election returns. Calvin Coolidge was elected President. Among the stations on the "hook-up" were Boston (WEEI), Washington (WCAP), Buffalo (WGR), Pittsburg (WCAK), and Davenport (WOC).