For researchers, scouring newspaper archives is an essential, yet at times tedious, process. Hours spent reading through century-old papers may yield only a small nugget of needed information. After several years of researching the life of Fred Hylands in this manner, I can cast light on his all-but forgotten career in vaudeville. As I studied Mr. Hylands, who he associated with proved just as fascinating as many accompaniments he provided for thousands of recordings.
Fred Hylands worked for the Columbia phonograph company from 1897 to about the middle of 1903, but he was never prominent as a phonograph accompanist. The way that most people might have known him was through his many second-rate vaudeville acts. Hylands started performing before age 10, and was primarily working in vaudeville beginning around 1893. His earliest acts on the variety stage are unknown, but according to what we know of his activities in 1896, he was likely a characteristic accompanist to generic performers in minor theaters.
He wasn’t successful as a composer until almost 1900. It’s worth noting his collaboration with Stephen B. Cassin. In 1899 he wrote one song with Cassin, called “I’se the Lady Friend of Mister Rastus Jackson,” a typical piece of early ragtime. Cassin was to rise to fame as a popular writer of entirely African-American productions like Sons of Ham (1900) and Abyssinia (1906). Often in histories of black theater he is mentioned alongside Williams and Walker and Will Marion Cook. This single song appears to have been the only collaboration between the two; despite that, the merit their collaboration brings is quite monumental, as their song was well written and provides a curious look into collaborations between white and black composers in the ragtime era.
Fast forward to when he was long beyond working for Columbia, and he was back on the vaudeville stage. This is when things get interesting. He had not performed with many folks whose names would be familiar to us nowadays, and the Broadway productions he was part of are similarly obscure. Around 1908, he had become weary of performing with his less-than-successful troupe, so he returned to working in vaudeville.
It is clear that he was working often, as his name begins to show up in the various theatrical papers of the time. Being a prominent member of the White Rats Actors’ Union, he only worked with those who were associated with the group. Many of the shows and gatherings hosted by this community included famous performers such as George M. Cohan and composer J. Fred Helf.
At the start of the 1910s, Hylands was down on his luck. It became increasingly difficult for him to find work, as his style of playing and performing was quickly falling out of fashion. His father Charles had supported him financially for most of his life, and when he died in 1908, that left Fred desperate for employment. Accordingly, he began taking on a number of vaudeville jobs. From this time onward, Hylands was mentioned in almost every article on the White Rats, hence his name showing up in so many papers.
In 1909, the White Rats drafted a contract with William Fox to show movies to accompany some of their acts, and Hylands played for many of these films. It is quite possible that during this time Hylands met some of the earliest of the film industry’s executives and performers. This piece of information was buried in a White Rats paper.
In 1911, Hylands started writing music again, and this time he was working with some partners of note. The first of these was Nat Vincent. Vincent was a young aspiring composer from Kentucky who had been hoping to make it big in Tin Pan Alley. However he met Hylands, and the two of them became vaudeville and songwriting partners. They wrote a few songs together during their time performing, one of which was called “The Lightning Rag,” which included a third noteworthy composer, Harry S. Marion. Marion was a composer of many popular “coon songs” of the late 1890s, and somehow ended up working with Hylands and Vincent in 1911-1912.
In mid-1912, Hylands had moved on from Vincent, and was working with an astonishing new partner—Will Rogers. According to the NY Player (a White Rats publication), Hylands worked with Rogers for a little while in a cabaret act. Yes indeed, this is the same Will Rogers, the famous cowboy rope-spinner and monologist who helped popularize the signature look and mannerisms we associate with the old west.
Unfortunately the act was not described in detail, so there’s no way of knowing what exactly their show looked like, but considering what Rogers was doing at the time, it was probably somewhat cowboy-themed. Hylands’ name shows up in many places with short mentions like this.
It is difficult to keep track of all the work that he was doing in such a short time of two years (1911-1913), but it seems that he had some kind of second wind on the stage in this period. In 1912 and 1913, he was performing all over for the White Rats.
In one long piece in the NY Player from 1912, Hylands is mentioned as the master of ceremonies for an extravagant two-night event held by the White Rats, and mentioned playing piano duets with Hylands was none other than George Botsford. Botsford was known for writing famous rags like “Black and White Rag” and “The Grizzly Bear,” so it is somewhat surprising to see these two popular pianists mentioned as performing together. One can only imagine the amount of sound the two of them made, and what the quality of the music must have been in their duets. Around this time he was also listed on a few of the same White Rats bills as Al Jolson, who was just beginning his career.
Sometime around the beginning of 1913 (but probably several years earlier), Hylands teamed up with his last vaudeville partner, Wilbur Held. Like Nat Vincent, Held was a Kentucky native, and had been trying to make a name for himself for several years. Held was a second-rate performer in vaudeville and on Broadway, who was occasionally pictured on sheet music in the 1900s. Their act was ragtime based, as Hylands was known for his ragged accompaniments (and lifestyle), but more specific details of their material is nonexistent.
This act proved to be quite popular, so much so that they were soon contracted to head to Europe. In mid-1913, Hylands and Held, along with their wives and a few others, sailed for England. While they were there, Hylands kept in contact with the press, and a recent newspaper find reveals that he sent a candid shot of the whole troupe from their ship out on the Adriatic.
He claimed that he was not feeling well at the time of their travel, but he persisted and went on the tour anyway. He died in England in October of 1913, but his name continued to show up in papers as late as 1915. His wife Marie was also a popular and busy vaudevillian throughout her life, but she rarely performed with Fred.
The list of those famous performers Hylands associated with continues to grow, and somehow it creates a better picture of what the man was like, and who he preferred to work with on the stage. Certainly a few of these names can catch the attention of any theatrical historian of the early 20th century. None of these performers mentioned him later, but his mark was made on their careers.