As is sometimes the case when I’m researching a topic, I stumble upon another subject that grabs my attention. It recently happened while I was rummaging for data regarding Charles Kaley, a Chicago bandleader who came to the attention of a wider public in 1927 after briefly marrying an underage Hannah Williams, one-half of the singing duo The Williams Sisters. The marriage was annulled in Circuit Court, Cook County, Illinois, on June 30 that same year.
The topic that pricked my curiosity also occurred in 1927, in Chicago, four weeks later during July, at the 3,400-seat Granada Theatre, where Charles Kaley and his Band were the pit orchestra. The stage presentation featured The Mound City Blue Blowers and 25-year-old singer Adelaide Hall.
Hall had yet to star in the Broadway revue Blackbirds of 1928 that would catapult her to international fame, neither had she committed to shellac her ground-breaking vocals on the recordings “Creole Love Call” and “The Blues I Love To Sing” with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra; that milestone would come about later in October 1927.
From a review I uncovered in the Exhibitors Herald of her performance at the Granada (for the week ending July 31), I discovered how Hall had developed a new style of singing she termed ‘squagel,’ which, from the account below, she used to significant effect at the Granada:
‘Adelaide Hall, the little ebony girl with the million-dollar personality, starts off her program with ‘It All Depends On You’, assisted by the Blue Blowers, who accompany her. As a second chorus in this song, Miss Hall offers her own original style of singing called ‘squagel’, a slow-tempo blues rendition which gets hotter and hotter.For an encore, she sang in her pleasing voice, ‘Under the Moon’, accompanying herself on the guitar, later doing a soft-shoe tap and finishing with ‘Song of the Wanderer.’ Not until she ‘squageled’ this number would the audience let her sign off.’1
What is ‘squagel’, I asked myself. Having extensively searched the internet, I’m still none the wiser. If any reader has an explanation, I’d be extremely pleased to hear it.
Bearing in mind that microphones and amplification were not yet used on stage, was Hall adding an echo to specific notes, or including harmonic phrasing between the melody, or mimicking reverb?
When listening to Hall’s wordless improvised vocal on “Creole Love Call”, which she recorded three months later on October 26, parts of it sound similar to an echo. Was this Hall ‘squageling’?
My guess is that ‘squagel’ is an acronym connected to musical notation, possibly including the words quaver or semiquaver, length, and echo. But as of yet, I cannot complete the phrase. Could it be along the lines of ‘Singing Quavers while Growling the Echo Length’?
It was fashionable to adopt acronyms during the early 1900s; the Russian royal family used them: OTMA denoted the four Grand Duchesses (Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia); RO stood for Romanov. European royalty also adopted the practice, as still do Government departments.
When writing my biography of the famous financier Otto Hermann Kahn, I unravelled various acronyms he created, including the company name Mogmar, for which he borrowed the initials of his immediate family, Margaret, Otto, Gilbert, Maud, Addie and Roger. Kahn also created anagrams. One I discovered he used as an alias to purchase stocks and shares covertly. When Kahn died, several share certificates assigned to his pseudonym were found in his office safe. Unsurprisingly, nobody came forward to claim them. I had a sneaky suspicion the name was an anagram, and after I finally deciphered the code, I was shocked by how brazen Kahn had been in creating the alias. I explain how I unravelled the code—something I’m quite proud of achieving, as I’m the only person ever to have cracked it—in my book, The KAHNS of Fifth Avenue.2
Which leads me back to Adelaide and ‘squagel’. Adelaide is acknowledged as an early champion of scat singing. In 1927, she starred in the summer revue Sunset Glories at the Sunset Café in Chicago, accompanied on stage by Louis Armstrong (another scat pioneer) and his band. Hall later confirmed that during her tenure at the Sunset, she experimented and expanded her scat singing under Armstrong’s guidance and encouragement. She’d previously utilized wordless singing while rehearsing new shows if she hadn’t learned the lyrics. Could ‘squagel’ have been the name Adelaide used to term ‘scat’ singing?
The definition of scat (in musical terms) is improvised vocal jazz using non-lexical vocables or nonsensical words. I also wondered if scat was an acronym. It is, but it doesn’t relate to vocals. Some dictionaries state it’s an onomatopoetic word—the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (such as buzz, hiss).
In my quest for more information about ‘squageling’, I uncovered a review of Hall’s performance in April 1932 at the 2,916-seat RKO Hillstreet Theatre in Los Angeles during her world tour. Her performance created a near sit-in by the audience, who refused to leave the packed theatre until they’d heard Hall sing her ‘blues renditions’ again, thereby preventing the audience of the second show from occupying their seats:
‘Saturday night, this house could not accommodate the crowd that was clamoring to get in long after the final show was in progress, and it must have been tough for manager [Arthur] Esperg to see them depart and tougher still when he started to refund money to ticket holders [who couldn’t get in.] The house did not empty as it should following the first performance, the opinion prevailing that many remained over to get another glimpse at Adelaide Hall, the colored crooning headliner of the vaudeville unit this week. Miss Hall made a pronounced impression, displaying a couple of nifty gowns and a crooning ability that found ready response. ‘When You’re In Love’ and her hit from Blackbirds, ‘I Must Have That Man’ were outstanders.‘4
The following month, a review of Hall’s performance at the Orpheum Theatre in Denver captures further details of her stagecraft:
‘The Crooning Blackbird, assisted by two pianists, does a good job of singing blues songs and does some clever footwork. She sings some river songs, the last against a white backdrop with the footlights throwing a huge shadow of herself against it.’5
It’s clear from the above reviews that whatever Hall put across during her performances, she mesmerized audiences and was as much involved with the show’s production as its content.
Did Adelaide Hall invent a style of singing that has long since been forgotten about? I believe she probably did.*
* (November 7, 2023, will mark the 30th anniversary of Hall’s passing.)
1 Exhibitors Herald, August 6, 1927, page 47 – Chicago, (Granada) week-ending July 31, 1927 (review).
2 It’s Not Beyond the Realms of Possibility, pages 586-588, The KAHNS of Fifth Avenue, ISBN-13 978-1916146587.
3 Exhibitors Herald, October 29, 1927, page 41 – Adelaide Hall advertisement.
4 Hollywood Filmograph, April 23, 1932, page 6 – RKO Hillstreet Theatre, Los Angeles (review).
5 Motion Picture Herald, May 14, 1932, page 72 – Orpheum Theatre, Denver (review).