During 1941-46, viewers all over the United States had an opportunity to see musical numbers on a visual jukebox. Rather than put a nickel in a conventional jukebox and hear a recording, customers could put a dime in a seven-foot tall machine with a screen and watch a three-minute performance. They were generally low budget productions, the music was pre-recorded ahead of time rather than actually performed live, and one could not choose which film on the eight-song reel was coming up next or even know what was on the reel. However Soundies, which were popular for a time, resulted in many top-notch performers (some of whom never recorded) being documented and they contain some classic performances. In the November issue of The Syncopated Times, Russ Tarby wrote an excellent and lengthy review of the four-disc Blu-ray set Soundies: The Ultimate Collection.
For a remarkably comprehensive work on those films, the two volume book The Soundies by film archivist and historian Mark Cantor really cannot be equaled. Cantor has long been one of the top collectors of vintage jazz films, and Soundies are a particular passion of his. Over the past 50 years, with his work accelerating in recent years, he compiled every bit of information about the Soundies and the results are 878 pages released in two volumes. The amount of research that went into this work is quite astounding.
After the late 1940s, Soundies were very scarce for decades. While a few occasionally popped up on television, it was up to collectors such as Cantor to find the films and keep them safe. It was not until the development of video-cassette machines that Soundies began to be reissued in compilations. In more recent times, many have become available on You Tube although some remain scarce. When one considers that such giants as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, Stan Kenton, Wingy Manone, Les Paul, Nat King Cole, Henry “Red” Allen, and Fats Waller are among those who participated (even if Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Harry James never made any Soundies), obviously there are many treasures to savor.
The first 134 pages of this massive work give readers a full background of the history and development of the Soundies. Among the topics that are covered at great length are what it was like in the 1940s to experience Soundies, a definition of terms such as “sidelining” (appearing on screen but not necessarily being the one actually performing the music), the problems of censorship, the fairly enlightened (for the time) marketing of performances by African-Americans, the effect of the Musicians Union recording strike on Soundies, the many predecessors to Soundies, the development of the Panoram machine that played Soundies, the history of the Mills Novelty Company and the Soundies Distribution Corporation, the many aspects involved in the process of producing these films, and the dozens of production companies that were involved in at least some of the short movies. While these topics may seem dry at first glance, Cantor’s writing style is lively, accessible and, while filled with information, quite colorful and affectionate towards the subject.
Of particular interest are around 80 interviews that Mark Cantor conducted with performers (well-known and obscure) who appeared in Soundies, with many of those discussions taking place back in the 1990s. Some of the musicians and singers had long forgotten that they made any Soundies; they were quite surprised when Cantor showed them a film in which they can clearly be seen. The storytelling is warm and consistently interesting. The memories of other survivors of the era help fill in the blanks throughout the narrative including those of James Roosevelt (the son of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) was a major force behind making the Soundies.
On page 103 of the book, trombonist Ben Long, who appeared in Soundies as part of the orchestras of Charlie Spivak and Les Elgart, gave a good summary of what the process was like for musicians. “We went to RCA for a regular three-hour session, just like any recording session. A number of takes, you stop for fluffs, things like that. Except it was an easy date since these charts were part of our book. Right after that, in a day or two, we went out to Long Island and did the filming. They played the tracks for us, we practiced…We had to work to get everything in sync. Then they filmed it and we went home with a paycheck.” Simple as that, except that 80 years later one can still see the performances.
The remainder of Mark Cantor’s work is even more impressive. There were 2,593 Soundies made and released during 1941-46. These contained jazz bands (big and small), country groups, dancers, vaudevillians, blues, comedy, pop singers, Irish and Hawaiian melodies, novelties, and performances that cannot really be classified. Cantor not only lists all of these films but includes loads of information including the release date, catalog number, song title, lyricist/composer, arranger, location, producer, director, instrumental personnel heard on the recording, sideline personnel (those seen on screen), instrumental solos, soundtrack and sideline vocalists, dancers, the supporting cast, a description of the Soundie as it was stated in the original catalog, the review of the film by Billboard, and other interesting tidbits.
Imagine compiling all of that for 2,593 films! But that is not all. The music and films were recorded and filmed at a total of 500 sessions with many of the groups making two or four Soundies during a single session. Cantor provides biographical information about the main performers and even tells how much they were paid for the project. In addition, there are around 125 photos in the two volumes, a chapter about what happened to the Soundies films, descriptions of related films from other companies, and extensive indexes.
It is fair to say that Mark Cantor’s The Soundies (available from www.amazon.com and www.mcfarlandbooks.com) includes everything one would ever want to know about these priceless and fun films in a very readable fashion. Can he be persuaded to write about the Snader Transcriptions (three-minute jazz performances made for television during 1950-52) in the future?
by Mark Cantor
McFarland Press; 892 pages; Softcover, $125