Ted Lewis

Picture 6

 “the high-hatted tragedian of song” 

I saw Ted Lewis here in Milwaukee sometime in the early 1950’s. I’m indebted to Wikipedia for the following information on him.

Theodore Leopold Friedman, better known as Ted Lewis (June 6, 1892 - August 25, 1971), was an American entertainer, bandleader, singer, and musician. He led a band presenting a combination of jazz, hokey comedy, and schmaltzy sentimentality that was a hit with the American public. He was known by the moniker “Mr. Entertainment”.

Born in Circleville, Ohio, Lewis was one of the first Northern musicians to start imitating the New Orleans jazz musicians who came up to New York in the teens. He first recorded in 1917 with Earl Fuller’s Jazz Band, who were making an energetic if somewhat clumsy attempt to copy the sound of the city’s newest sensation, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

At the time, Lewis didn't seem to be able to do much on the clarinet other than trill. (Promoting one recording the Victor catalog stated:"The sounds as of a dog in his dying anguish are from Ted Lewis' clarinet"). He improved a bit later, forming his style from the influences of the first New Orleans clarinetists to reside in New York, Larry Shields, Alcide Munez, and Achille Baquet.

By 1919 Lewis was leading his own band, and had a recording contract with Columbia Records, which marketed him as their answer to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band who recorded for Victor records. At the start of the 1920’s he was considered by many people without previous knowledge of jazz (that is to say, most of America) to be one of the leading lights of hot jazz. Lewis’ clarinet playing never evolved beyond his style of 1919 which in later years would sound increasingly corny, but Lewis certainly knew what good clarinet playing sounded like, for he hired musicians like Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and the wonderful and, (unfortunately), largely forgotten Don Murray to play clarinet in his band.

For years his band also included jazz greats Muggsy Spainer on trumpet and George Brunis on trombone, Ted Lewis’s band was second only to the Paul Whiteman in popularity during the 1920’s and arguably played more real jazz with less pretension than Whiteman, especially in his recordings of the late 1920’s.

Lewis’s band got cornier and more schmaltzy as the Great Depression wore on, but this seemed to match the general public’s taste, as he kept commercially successful during an era when many bands broke up. Through it all he retained his famous catch phrase, “Is everybody happy?”. Lewis adopted a battered top hat for sentimental, hard-luck tunes (he called himself  “the highhatted tragedian of song”). Frequently he would stray from song lyrics, improvising chatter around them. This gave the effect of Lewis “speaking” the song spontaneously: “When ma’ baby...when ma’ baby smiles at me...gee, what a wonderful, wonderful light that comes to her eyes...look at that light, folks...”

Lewis kept his band together through the 1950s, and continued to make appearances on television and in Las Vegas into the 1960s. True to his vaudeville beginnings, he created a visual as well as a musical act. His physical presence with props like his top hat combined with bits of visual humor and dancing were as important to him as his music. One of his most memorable songs was Me and My Shadow with which he frequently closed his act. During the song he danced on stage with his own, spotlight-generated, shadow. In Vegas, a dancer was added to duet with Lewis’ shadow on stage. His career covered sixty-two years.

He retired at 77. He died in New York City in 1971 at 81. In June 1977, Lewis’s widow and friends dedicated the Ted Lewis Museum and park in his honor in his home town of Circleville, Ohio.

Now how and why did I get to see Ted Lewis. He made an appearance at the old Schroeder Hotel in their Crystal Ballroom, here in Milwaukee. A number of well known entertainers of the time, appeared in the Crystal Ballroom for an evening of fine dining, entertainment and dancing to the orchestra music. I had an aunt and uncle that loved this kind of entertainment. They had no children of their own so I was asked to accompany them on occasion. As I remember it, Ted sang songs he made popular, did his ‘shadow’ dance act to music of ‘Me And My Shadow’ while also playing the clarinet. I know that I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

My aunt had a number of 78 rpm records of Ted Lewis, which I now have and put onto CDs. The sound quality is surprisingly good for being over 80 years old.

Ted was on the radio with his own show in 1934,  called ‘The Ted Lewis Show’.  As Ted would have said “Is Everybody Happy”? I sure hope so”! *


Ted Lewis

Born: June 6, 1891; Circleville, Ohio

Died; August 25, 1971: New York City of a heart attack