Thursday, November 26, 2015

Character Studies--Billy Golden(1858-1926)

"I throw'd myself in a yaller gal's lap--and the yaller gal turn'd de way!"-from Billy Golden's "Roll On The Ground" from c.188?(recorded in 1898)

Yes indeed,Billy Golden, the phonograph artist who was known for singing ''Turkey in the Straw" perhaps over a thousand times. He had been a specialist with minstrel songs since the 1870's, and not just with his "Turkey in the Straw", but the other handful of songs that he made hits with. He had an interesting background, coming from Cincinnati Ohio, with parents that were apparently involved with the local show business. Golden was actually born William Shires in 1858, and became a butcher boy under his father. After working this job for a little while, he became fascinated with the minstrel troupes that came through his town and aspired to one day become one of them. At around the age of 17(in 1875 mind you!), he started as a dancer and all around performer of minstrel songs, doing whistling, dancing, singing, and even yodeling. He started to travel around in small minstrel troupes all over the mid western US, until he made his way to the big stages of New York in the 1880's. In the mid-1880's, he had a team on the stage with his wife May, still doing the dancing and everything else in blackface.  By 1891, the Columbia Phonograph Company finally found him and wanted him to record for them. His shouting and powerful voice recorded surprisingly well on their primitive machines. He was a master at making minstrel records, and later in that year, he joined the mysterious and long-forgotten Brilliant Quartette. You can hear one of their very few records from 1893 here, with Golden singing and Yodeling as well. Golden was making records like mad in the mid-1890's, recording his old specialties like "Turkey in the Straw" and "Roll on the Ground" and a few more. He was among the first handful of artists to first make records for Emile Berliner in 1894, the year that Berliner introduced the disk record to the United States from Germany. Golden was chosen as one of the first disk record artists because his voice was loud enough and it would come through very well on the hand-wound "Gram-o-phons" as they were called by the Germanic inventor Berliner. He made records of all his specialties on Berliner, Columbia, and later on Edison and Victor. 

Golden was a real "riot" in the studio. He would come in to record just often and as much as Len Spencer would. He and Spencer connected at Columbia way back in '89, and they really had so much in common that their friendship was inevitable. Both with Ohio roots, they both had a connection that ran deep in their souls, and when they were both in the studio together, you could see it. But as Spencer did, when Fred Hylands came along, he left Golden out of that small circle of friends and replaced him with Hylands. Golden was piercingly loud, and it is really a miracle that the machines were ever able to take his voice without breaking their glass on the reproducers. His signature shout at the beginning "WELL---" was something that he specialized in doing, and whenever you heard that, you knew it was Billy Golden. He had a terrible sense of overall pitch, not just in his notoriously terrible but very bird-like whistling, but also in much of his singing, as he was completely untrained(much like Dan Quinn!). He almost gave the impression that he was unable to read or write, or at least not very well. This may have been a possibility as to why he had so few songs in his repertoire and why he didn't really learn any new songs. It helped that the pianists that he had behind him were always playing new things, and every time they played, it was different, even if it were the same song as the last one. Golden was great at singing old minstrel songs, and when any one of the old-timer record listeners was hearing a minstrel song, they immediately expected it to be Billy Golden, not Len Spencer. Golden had an extraordinary range, being able to sing high tenor, and also able to sing in that low crackly voice that he used sometimes, but of course, he hadn't really the best ears for notes. He especially enjoyed working with Hylands, as they were practically raised in the same environment and began their careers in the same time, and in the same area. They may have run into each other for all they knew! His shout at the beginning of all his solo records boomed in every studio, didn't matter which one mentioned. He was much more suited to be able to be heard in the Swiss alps than at the big long Columbia recording room, more so than George P. Watson or L. W. Lipp(Edison's big yodeler in 1897 to 1900). All the doors had to be shut if Golden was making records at Columbia, so other records could still be made down the hall, and not in the room next to it. He always had to be placed in the big room at Columbia, because his voice was so loud, and the small rooms would never work in the sense balancing, especially with his piercing whistling. Just like many of the artists there, his wife May very much enjoyed seeing him do what he did, and sometimes came in with him to watch the whole process go by, she especially liked to do this all dressed up for the exhibitions. He and Billy were always in love, and it was evident, bot as much as Vess and Eunice, but it was a blooming love always. After 1903, Golden's popularity on records dropped dramatically, so it was in 1904 or 05 that he skipped out on the recording business and left for a few years. He returned in later 1908 to record only sketches for some reason. That was all that he recorded form 1908 to just a few years before he died. He went through Billy Heins, Joe Hughes, and James Marlowe in this time(from 1908 to 1921), which was actually an interesting mix of performers. They all blended with Golden pretty well, and to tell the truth, James Marlowe blended with Golden the best, vocally and performance wise, more so than Len Spencer did. It isn't known what Golden did in that short time between 1921 and 1926, but he probably just ended his career in recording and performing completely, which was the right thing to do, since he was an aging ol minstrel man. He must have been reasonably wealthy when he died, and left some of the money to his wife. 

I hope you enjoyed this! 


  1. I did enjoy this very much! But I've got a couple of questions: my information shows that Billy did not come from rural Ohio but from the city of Cincinnati; his parents were both very active in show business circles there. Also, I think 1889 is a little early for Billy to be involved in recording just yet. 1889 is still in the exhibition/office dictation era of the phonograph, and the first phonograph parlors did not open until the fall of 1890, exacerbating the need for commercial recordings. I think that the accepted date of 1891 makes the most sense.

    1. Thank you very much for your reply! I always learn something new from you! I will certainly go an fix the post so it is a little more accurate, you you would very much know this more than I would.
      The Phonoscope does not give an exact date of when he started in the business, but it indicates a year of 1889 or 1890, and now that you said that I would think more like 1891, as it was only Len Spencer who began in 1889.