Give or take a century, Arthur Fields was a neighbor of mine. Though he was born in Philadelphia, he spent much of his childhood and adolescence a mile or so down the street from the offices of The Syncopated Times here in Utica, New York. For that reason, I’m particularly pleased that Archeophone has issued a compilation of a number of his important and rare recordings, all beautifully restored by Richard Martin, and with liner notes by Fields scholar Ryan Barna.
Uticans tend to crow about one or two famous people who were born or who passed through here. They revere the memory of Annette Funicello, a talented performer who left town when she was four years old and found fame with the Mickey Mouse Club. They are not shy to mention Dick Clark, who worked at a local radio station as a teen and came back after college to work here in television—until Philadelphia (and Bandstand) drew him away.
Forgotten here is Arthur Fields, born Abraham Finkelstein in 1888—a formidable presence in various media: stage, recordings, songwriting, and radio. Young Abe was a melodious singer, and his voice is praised in contemporary Utica newspaper accounts. By 1906, he was on the road with the Guy Brothers Minstrel Company. The usual vicissitudes associated with getting a start in show business beset him for the next few years, but he delved into writing songs, including one enduring hit: “Aba Daba Honeymoon.”
By 1915, he had tamed his strong “theater” voice sufficiently to record through the recording horn onto wax, though his early discs reveal the power of his instrument. What comes through the century-old shellac grooves is a deep and evident sincerity. Fellow upstater Irving Kaufman had moments of that self-aware “hip” irony of which Fields is entirely innocent. Fields has the quality of being able to tell a joke without seeming to be in on the joke. There is something touching about his un-selfconscious approach toward everything he sings, even as he handles novelty tunes with glee and gusto.
His earnest intensity must have been contagious, since his stage exhortations during World War One convinced three thousand men to enlist and sold many tens of thousands of dollars in Liberty Bonds. Fields, who enrolled in the NY National Guard for the purpose of recruiting soldiers to fight the Kaiser, was gung-ho. And “Stay Down Here Where You Belong” (“To please their kings they’ve all gone off to war / And not one of them knows what he’s fighting for”) was utterly forgotten.
After the war Fields joined brothers Irving and Jack Kaufman (of Syracuse NY); they billed themselves as “The Three Kaufields.” In the 1923, Fields opened a music shop and sold records on his own label—ventures which drifted into bankruptcy after his wife became ill and died.
Arthur Fields’ life was on the upswing again as he teamed with bandleader Fred Hall in 1926 to make hundreds of records, many of which have strong jazz elements. They wrote dozens of songs intentionally destined for “B” sides. Later, as the “Hillbilly” craze took hold, Fields went full yokel—a role for which he was eminently suited. Urbanites Hall and Fields leapt into radio as country performers Rex Cole’s Mountaineers.
Their success in radio, under various names and sponsorships, lasted a decade. After they parted company, Fields kept working in radio and made one more recording of interest. The penultimate track on this disc is an uncharacteristically trenchant version of “Der Furher’s Face,” recorded for Eli Oberstein’s Hit label during the recording ban. Fields, who keenly felt antisemitism, sang with bitter sarcasm as he let Hitler have it with both barrels.
Having achieved so much, Arthur Fields fought against age and declining health to stay in show business. He could not. A severe stroke on March 11, 1953, and a devastating nursing home fire 18 days later ended the struggle.
The Arthur Fields Anthology captures the essence of the man whose life’s work was to entertain others without meanness or guile. There are no hidden meanings, dog whistles, or double-entendres in these performances. His innocence of intent and his real enthusiasm for his material shame us jaded moderns. It behooves us to listen.
Arthur Fields Anthology: Singer, Songwriter, Soldier Recordings 1914-1951
Archeophone ARCH 5506 archeophone.com