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Stars' stories

Bee Palmer was “too much” for her time, and men adored her!

By Maximillien de Lafayette 
Bee Palmer, a.k.a. The Shimmy Queen, (September 11, 1894-December 22, 1967). One of a kind. A woman who took the stage, the audience, the Jazz era, and the society by storm. She used thick layers of “rouge”; rouge for her lips, that is. Nothing is wrong with that, except that those thick layers of rouge were intentionally mixed with Swedish wax! Asking her about the purpose of such a mix, Palmer replied: “The kiss wouldn’t last more than 2 seconds!” She was referring to men with “bushy mustaches! She hated mustaches and “hairy faces”! Bee Palmer was an accomplished pianist, sophisticated, the most elegant woman of her generation, composer, songstress, daring and risqué dancer, a Ziegfeld’s Follies star, with mesmerizing personality and captivating beauty. And men adored her! Palmer wrote several hits, including “Please Don't Talk about Me When I'm Gone.” In 1918, Palmer appeared in Ziegfeld's “Midnight Frolic”, she sang her own songs and accompanied herself on the piano. But singing was not enough for Bee Palmer. In 1921, she created “The Shimmy”; the most popular dance of the era. Historians and critics described it as vulgar, low class, and “wiggling from the shoulders.” One of the great admirers of “The Shimmy” was Mae West. 
On March 3, 1921, Beatrice Palmer married her pianist, the 23 year old Al Siegel. And the charade began. Shortly after his marriage to Bee, on November 10, 1921, Al Siegel filed a $250,000 suit against heavyweight champion of the world Jack Dempsey in the Supreme Court of New York, accusing him of having an affair with Bee Palmer. In court, Dempsey testified that he has never met Bee Palmer, and he denied all charges. 
Later on, it was discovered that the whole thing was a publicity stunt. Jack Kearns, personal manager of Dempsey was trying to get the champ an acting role in a Vaudeville’s stage production. He thought a scandal of such magnitude would help Dempsey in getting an acting role. It did not work. 
Bee and Al separated over this controversy. In February 1922, Bee and Al made up. Ironically, a few weeks later, Al Siegel began an affair with singer Sophie Tucker. But Bee Palmer was not exactly a saint. She was well-known as a “party girl.” Peers accused her of “sleeping her way to the top.” 
In 1928, Bee Palmer divorced Al Siegel. In 1933, Al Siegel began a new affair with his student, the future star of the era, Ethel Merman. In 1935, Al Siegel married Yvonne Devoe. Al Siegel, 82, died July 25, 1981 in Laguna Beach, California. 
In December 1933, Bee Palmer married the 20 year old Jack Fina who had a hit with “Bumble Boogie.” Jack Fina died May 13, 1970 of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California. In 1967, 

Bee Palmer made headlines again when she fell in a building construction ditch, downtown Manhattan, while feeding stray cats. Animal lovers and cats’ owners rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where Bee Palmer was hospitalized, and many protested against the building owners, waving huge signs and banners in front of the main entrance of the hospital. It was a riot! 
Bee Palmer died on December 22, 1967 in New York from a breast cancer. She was 73 years old. Her hits included the 1919 “I Want to Shimmie”, the 1926 “What Can I say After I say I am Sorry”, the 1932 “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues”, and the 1934 “Don’t Leave Me Daddy.” She performed with the biggest orchestras of the era, including the legendary Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, and she appeared at the Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1928. She will always be remembered for her extravagant parties and love for life. 



By Maximillien de Lafayette 

Photo: Jelly Roll Morton and his Vaudeville partner Rosa Brown in 1914. 

The early Afro-American recording artists were: Sara Martin, Mamie Smith and Clarence Williams. In 1920, Mamie Smith became the first major singer to record blues songs on Okeh Records with her innovative versions of Perry Bradford's Crazy Blues, and It's Right Here for You. The record became an instant success, selling 950,000 records. The success of Mamie Smith encouraged other record companies to find other black female blues singers who could match the talent of Smith. Ironically, Mamie Smith was never considered a Blues singer. In fact, she was a Vaudeville entertainer who started as a dancer in New York in 1913. She was a magnificent and prolific performer with an enormous creativity. She excelled in dancing, comedy, outrageous trapeze acts, and covered herself with jewelry and lavish costumes that put Liberace to shame. 


Clarence Williams was born in 1893 in Plaquemine, Louisiana, and died in 1965 in New York. He had a long and prolific career. For health reasons, he retired in the early forties and spent his last days in the antique business. Clarence Williams is rarely remembered nowadays despite his enormous contribution to music. Many music historians place him in in the league of Jelly Roll Morton. In 1890, George W. Johnson became the first African American to record commercially.A former slave, Johnson was discovered singing on the streets of Washington, D.C., by Berliner recording agent Fred Gaisberg, who later spread rumors that Williams has murdered his wife. 

The years between 1895 and 1905 were abundant with popular music, and many genres and different styles overlapped. 

The air was filled with sentimental ballads, musical comedies, Broadway show tunes, ragtime, cakewalk songs, coon songs, Irish tunes, Italian serenades, marches, comic songs, songs from the Civil War, dancing tunes, waltz, polka, you name it. All tunes and songs were mixed up and mingled. For instance, ragtime music was often played as “Tempo di Marcia” (march music) and Polka tunes were called two-step or march music. Sentimental songs were extremely popular, and sold like hot cake. 

The two biggest hits of the era were: W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” the most recorded American song, and “Silver Threads Among the Gold” (lyrics by Eben Eugene Rexford, and music by Hart Pease Danks.) Composer and songwriter Hart Pease Danks. Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1834, his first composition was included in William Bradley’s Jubilee, entitled “Lake Street.” Another song, “The Old Lane” was published in Chicago in 1856, and he continued to publish several hundreds. Two songs, “Silver Threads Among the Gold” and “Don’t be Angry with me, Darling,” sold several hundred thousand copies. He has also published books of anthems that were very well received. However, his finances were far from good. The publishers, who made a fortune from each song, paid him only thirty dollars for the copyrights! He never received a dime from royalties! He moved around quite a bit, living in Cleveland from 1858 to 1861, in Chicago from 1861 to 1864, and from 1864 to 1887 in New York City. Hart P. Danks died in poverty in Philadelphia, PA on November 20, 1903. His last written words were “It’s hard to die alone.”2-American composer and cornet player, W. C. Handy, is often called “The Father of the Blues.” The music existed before him, coming from the South in the 19th Century, but Handy was the first to write and publish the songs using the word “blues” in the titles. His most famous composition is the “St. Louis Blues,” which he published in 1914. It was not always easy to understand and categorize the musical genres of the era. Everything was mixed up. The Italians would sing Sicilian, Caprese and Napolitan songs and mixed the whole thing with Polka. Jews from Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Germany would sing Jewish songs in German, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew and other dialects and mixed religious songs with ethnic tunes, romantic songs, folkloric dance and some Kozaks tempo. Poles would mix Polka dancing music with Parisian sentimental songs. So did the French, Irish, Armenians, Greeks and Argentinians. And Americans enjoyed all sorts of music and songs ranging from Sousa’s marching band to Broadway shows tunes, Vaudeville’s songs, concert bands, opera, ragtime, African-American rhythms, patriotic songs, and hymns, almost everything. It was a lovely mess. Call it the music fever of the era. 


There was a great variety in the arrangements of melodies. Band arrangements were extremely popular, and audiences loved songs like “Hiawatha” or a ragtime novelty such as the “Maple Leaf Rag” when played by the popular Sousa band. The name “barbershop quartet” was not yet coined, as evidenced by the fact that it was not mentioned on sheet music or in music trade journals; no one wore a barbershop uniform. Many of us associate the barbershop quartet with the 1890s to WWI, but it really was to appear in the 1920s and continued well into the 1940s and even later. Nevertheless, male quartets were extremely popular, and even sang the songs we associate with barbershop quartet, such as “Sweet Adeline.” The quartet consisted of the first tenor (the highest pitch), the second tenor, usually the leading voice, a baritone and a bass 

John Philip Sousa.

He was born in Washington, D.C. on November 6, 1854, the third of ten children. His first published composition, in 1872, was “Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes,” and he wrote it for a friend who was trying to impress a girl. Despite the fact that he hardly earned anything from it, Sousa was delighted that his work was made public, and determined to become a professional musician. An obstacle occurred when he fell in love with Emma M. Whitefield Swallow, whose stepfather objected to the young musician on the practical grounds that he could never support a wife and family. But nothing would deter Sousa. He promised to come back in two years, financially successful. And indeed, accepting a conducting job in Chicago started Sousa’s amazing career. Highly successful, he returned in two years to Washington, and no objections were made to the marriage. A happy and successful man, he worked well into old age, and on February 1932, at the age of seventy-six, he conducted the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps bands, performing a march he had written in honor of George Washington 200th birthday. A perfect man for the era, Sousa was considered one of the world’s greatest composers and conductors. 2-Emma M. Whitfield Swallow became Mrs. John Philip Sousa. 

Music produced at home took advantage of the new technologies. A music box, player piano, or phonograph, often called a talking machine, were all used. But at that time most music in the home was still produced by someone at the piano, or perhaps accompanying a family member who would be singing, assisted by sheet music. The gradual drop in piano prices helped, since people could afford them, and they bought sheet music in quantities. As a matter of fact, the sheet music industry drove the hits of the day. Here is an interesting quotation from the trade journal Edison Phonograph Monthly regarding the song, "Pride of the Prairie." It appeared on page 16 in the August 1908 issue: "The past summer brought out some clever popular songs, but none to take the public fancy more than 'Pride of the Prairie.' It was heard in vaudeville, in illustrated songs at the moving picture shows; the bands took it up in the parks and passed it on to the orchestras on excursion boats. It is just the stripe of song that starts the gallery whistling." Perhaps the statement was slightly exaggerated, but it’s important because it mentions the public places where one could hear music. The “gallery whistling,” incidentally, refers to the behavior of people sitting in the cheap seats of the gallery, mostly lower middle class, white collar workers, skilled workers, and tradesmen. The songwriters measured the potential success of a song by these people’s interest. If they liked a song well enough to whistle, the song would be a hit. True, they could not spend money on the one-sided discs or wax cylinders, this was reserved to the more prosperous classes, but their opinion mattered. No one cared what the lower working class people thought. They earned less than five hundred dollars a year, and could not afford any entertainment whatsoever. The one-sided discs sold very well, despite the high prices. For example, Columbia Disc 1792, which is Billy Murray singing “Meet me in St. Louis” sold, in 1904, for one dollar, and delivered only two to three minutes of music. However, the discs drove the prices of the wax cylinders down; they were more fragile than discs, as the buying public was well aware of, so the price dropped from the original fifty cents to twenty-five cents, creating a brisk trade. Another venue, now lost forever, was once highly popular in theaters such as Coney Island’s Wackie’s Theater. It was called “The Illustrated Song. As the singers performed, colored slides, depicting images related to the theme of the song were projected on the screen behind them. 

As mentioned above, before 1905 sheet music was essential for creating hits, since records were expensive. Of course, if a popular performer sang it before a large audience, the song had a good chance, but sheet music, transcribed for voice and piano, was much more reliable. The sheet music business started with Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball.” He published it himself in 1893, and the good sales convinced others to join the trend. And so an entire industry was born, with excellent art on the covers, serious promotion, and many salesmen of sheet music, called “pluggers.” The industry’s hub was in Manhattan. At first, many of the publishers concentrated in West 28th Street, near Fifth Avenue. The William Morris Talent Agency, and The New York Clipper, the Vaudeville’s trade journal, were also there. The place was buzzing with activity and sound, and one day, journalist and songwriter Monroe H. Rosenfeld visited Harry Von Tilzer, who had muted his own piano with paper. Rosenfeld listened to the sound of the piano, and to the competing pianos all over the building and the entire neighborhood, and commented: “It sounds like a tin pan.” Liking the phrase, Rosenfeld gave the title “Tin Pan Alley” to an article he wrote, and the name stuck. This happened in 1903, and in the 1920s most of the publishers moved to 42nd street and up. The famous Brill Building was actually built in 1931 at 1619 Broadway and 49th Street. But even though the publishers moved, they took the name “Tin Pan Alley” with them, and it remained attached to New York City music publishers. Of course, other cities had publishers too. Kansas City, for example, could boast that the popular 1987 song, Hattie Nevada’s “Letter Edged in Black” was published there. And there were also publishers in Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago. But New York had the legendary firms, with incredible sales. These included Von Tilzer, Harms, Feist, Witmark, and Remick, though Detroit-based, had an immense office in Manhattan. Manhattan remained the center of the industry.