Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Mystery behind Seymour Furth, and the best Vaudeville accompanists

I don't think I've ever mentioned Theodore Morse on this blog before, but he was a fascinating character of early Tin Pan Alley and had an odd influence on early recordings. Morse was considered one of he best stage accompanists in his day, along with Seymour Furth, Fred Hylands and Mike Bernard. The evidence is here:

Who was Seymour Furth exactly? Well, that's a hard question to answer directly, as looking through a bunch of popular sheet music from 1901-1909, one can certainly find "Seymour Furth" listed as the composer on quite a lot of this music. Seeing that alone can get someone curious. Just out of coincidence, most of you early sheet music collectors probably have a bunch of music by Seymour Furth anyhow, as he did write a whole lot of very popular show tunes in the era just before Tin Pan Alley. 

From what I have noticed, Furth was essentially the same thing Fred Hylands was. By this, it is meant that he was a stage pianist, music director, composer, and publisher all in one. In fact, I would bet that they were competitors once Hylands got thrown out of Columbia in 1905. Though they probably were competitors starting in the late-1890's, this competition would have become more prominent by the time Columbia wasn't having to deal with Fred. I did some "digging" this evening to see if I could find anything on Furth, and at this didn't get really far, but I found a list of Broadway shows that he directed and did the music for, which certainly says something. He did more shows than Hylands did, so that also in some sort of indicator. 

I have the feeling that Furth was less complicated, calmer, and musically weird than Hylands or Mike Bernard. Which must have added to the fact that Furth was considered the best stage accompanist out there in 1900. He must have been a much easier person to deal with than Bernard or Hylands(as they were both full of themselves, especially Bernard). We still don't really know too many details about Furth though, which is very odd, because clearly he was brilliant and beloved, more so than Bernard was. He was clearly a great composer, as here you can hear one of his Rags:
He had some very creative musical ideas, that were very stylish and probably changed slightly with the times just like Hylands did. He was writing music in 1898 and 1899, so at this, his style probably sounded reminiscent of Max Hoffman or Ben Harney, as did many of the "Rag" pianists of the late-1890's. Hoffman's amazing skill at writing music was really what made him so famous in the Rag-Time community, as all of the other greats in the "New York Rag Time Community", didn't exactly know how to get all of their ideas written out to the exact syncopation and rhythmic ideas. 
I would guess that Furth was someone similar to this as well, since his music was all over the place, that says something.  Yes, I know, Harney wrote out all of those great songs he did, like "Mister Johnson Turn me Loose" in 1896 with the syncopated patterns that he played (kind of), but think about that for a moment. He had to go to John Biller in Louisville back in 1895 to get him to write out "You've Been a Good Old Wagon", because no one knew how to write out how he played the song. Biller didn't even get it exact. The fact that Harney had to go to someone else who was proficient in writing music to write out his piece really can probably apply to many of the earliest popular "Rag" pianists. 

Refer to Hylands' "Darkey Volunteer". That piece is a perfect example of the wild nature of Hylands, as it's got lots of notes, and speckles of Rag-Time everywhere. There aren't too many of the early "Rags" out there that were that scattered. Even most of Bernard's music makes sense, though we well know that his playing is very hard to understand, both back then, and even now. 
Yes indeed. Bernard had the fastest fingers in vaudeville in the pre-Tin Pan Alley era. And I thought Hylands was fast! Nope, that is exactly why Bernard won all of those Rag-Time contests in the late-1890's. Bernard was among the best accompanists according to the managers on broadway, though his rhythm was terrible, and he was the most terribly vain of all the pianists the managers wanted. Since Hylands was Pastor's music man(music director at Pastor's theater) in 1896(?)-1897, he knew Bernard well, and probably had his share of bouts with him. 

There were a few of these "Rag" pianists who were left out from being called best of the best, and this includes Burt Green and Ben Harney. More specifically Burt Green, because he was certainly good, and was used at Huber's museum/theater, which was certainly a real feat. Green was a friend of Hylands, and as we might expect, was not really the best thing for him, being an imitator of Harney, that went very well with the people, but being a close friend of Fred Hylands' was not exactly with the same connotations. Did he know Seymour Furth? Probably. It might have been distant, like Hylands and Max Hoffmann. All these pianists must have been aware of each other's styles, as when we hear Mike Bernard play in those Columbia's, it is clear that his inspirations are present. By this, I mean those like Max Hoffmann, Fred Hylands, and Ben Harney. 
Such as this one here:
Now, for a comparison, listen to Hylands' "Turkey in the Straw" with Billy Golden from 1898. It literally almost sounds like Bernard is behind Golden on this. Yep, I definitely hear those similarities. Also, there were some things that Hylands plays here that can be heard in Furth's "Pinochle Rag" from many years later. 
The one thing that can be easily compared between Hylands playing "Turkey in the Straw" to Bernard playing "The 1915 Rag" is that they have the same amount of frantic-ness toward the end of the records. If you listen, it's exactly the same kind of frantic on both recordings. Bernard tried not to really trip himself over with all the notes, which he kind of does anyway. Hylands is trying to avoid this as well, but since he was just enough controlled, he was able to keep it all there(just about). Bernard was not accustomed to studio playing though, none of the stage accompanists knew what that was like truly, other than Hylands of course. He probably thought he was much better than everyone because he lived a horrid eight years working as a studio pianist, and none of those other pianists had any idea of what a horror that was. 
The only other one of them who would have any idea of how terrible being a studio pianist was, would be Burt Green. Green worked as Hylands' "gopher" if you will, for that short period of time he was a publisher in 1899-1900. As Fred's "gopher", he was the one who tended to his firm(his flat) while his master was gone the whole day until late in the evenings, more often than not, drunk or drugged. 
That's another thing. All of these other stage pianists lived longer than Hylands. Even Burt Green outlived Hylands by a few years(he died in 1921). Hmm... that's odd to ponder, but it's true. Hylands was probably the most brilliant, but did the most damage to his body in such a short period of time. Theodore More died in 1924, which meant that he was fifty when he croaked. That's much better than Hylands' 41. But of course, Max Hoffmann outlived pretty much everyone, dying in 1963 pretty much says everything. 

I wish Jim Walsh interviewed him.

I hope you enjoyed this! 

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