Sunday, December 4, 2016

Denny's Wails and Spencer's wise Cracks

There's a whole lot to love about Will F. Denny, but despite the praise he's gotten with record collectors, there's not much known about him. This is unfortunate, since he's one of the earliest Columbia "regulars", being advertised in The Phonogram as early as 1892. He was really the most energetic and vigorous of the earliest recording stars, even he surpassed Leachman's level of this on his Victors. Most collectors know of Denny's signature wails and laughs on most of his records, which made his recordings distinct in the era they were made. 
His records are comical in different ways than those of the Spencer's or Russell Hunting's, but his humor is a type that more collectors can easily catch, and agree with as well. Spencer and Hunting are often too crass for many collectors, which is perfectly fine to my liking. Denny's humor however, was full of energy and practical humor, that seemed more widely enjoyed by Victorian people. Denny's humor(for the most part), was the humor of the stuffy upper class, even though this was not always the case. Spencer's and Hunting's was the humor of the people, or saloon-goers and workers. It seems strange to compare these recording stars by the type of humor they conveyed on their recordings, but there's certainly a difference between Denny and Spencer. 

One thing to consider when reviewing Spencer's sense of humor is the fact that he was a dandy. 
Even at about 23, Spencer was already cultivating the dandy's style, as that tie is very unusual from the early 1890's. His humor was rather dark and crass, even with his well-to-do upbringing. His background didn't seem to matter when he became involved with the first "clan" members Russell Hunting and Victor Emerson. Hunting really got him into the business "full-time" so to speak, as it seems he was in and out of recording before 1892. Hunting was drawn to Spencer because of his knowledge and curiosity of recording, especially Spencer's ability and interest in the mechanics of recording, even though we know that Spencer did more than that. Of course, we know what Hunting decided to do almost just as he became a recoding star, recording smut. Once he began doing this, he must have gone to Spencer to ask if he would be one of his "doubles" to record his smut under pseudonyms, but of course, Spencer refused the offer. But after Hunting's bust in 1896, Spencer took on little bits of Hunting's crass humor and set them in some of his sketches and songs. With sketches like this one:

 (in a high voice) Say Nigger--

Well, what now lady?

(high voice)I wanta aks yew which one out a' all these gals you've got that yew really love the best?

Well lady, I consider that an impersonal 'cause I don't discuss my love affairs with nobody. But since that you are rubberneckin' an' wants ta know, why I'll tell you it's a---
(sings the rest of the song etc...)
This sketch came from Spencer's 1899 Columbia of "My Josephine" with Hylands on piano. This is certainly one of the more racy sketches of Spencer's, even though his auction records sometimes have even more saucy comments and puns, such as this one from his Victor of "Auction Sale of Household Goods":
"The lady that sells this piano's got beautifully carved legs, double back action..."
That's one that could easily be missed when listening to the recording, it took several listens to fully catch the joke. It's things exactly like this that define the humor of both the Spencer's, and what sets then apart from Denny's wild recordings. 

Denny always threw in something to his records to make them more energetic, and sometimes they seem a little strange, such as one of the earliest surviving recordings of him, his 1893 New England Phonograph record of "You Can't Think of Everything". This recording is strange for the fact that Denny gradually grows louder as he sings the verses, which is something that recording stars were advised not to do, or maybe someone told him to do that, but this was the result. It's very weird, that he was probably told to be very loud, and how he delivered! He's shouting by the last chorus, which is something only suited for Edward M. Favor when making records. When he came around again in 1896, Denny used his shouting for more practical comedic effect, rather than just shouting the lyrics to the song by the end of the cylinder. A great example of this is on his early 1902 recording of "Has Anybody Seen Our Cat?", of which the link I cannot share, but if you know the song, you could guess that Denny really does all of his signature comedy, in fact, he does just that, and a little bit more. He does a whole Meow! Meow! Thing at the end, and it tops of the whole recording's wild nature. His many Columbia cylinders from 1898-1899, are among the best examples of his entire range of recording, since that's when there was a wide variety, but also a whole lot of his signature Comic songs, such as his wild version of "How'd You Like to be the Iceman?", and His 1898 patter specialty, "A Man Took A Girl"(Music starts at 5 minutes in...). His "A Man Took A Girl" is especially a great example of his Vaudeville skill, patter songs just like that are the apex of still-relatable comedy. It helps Denny had Fred Hylands behind him on all those fantastic recordings, especially since Hylands added little tags of Rag-Time at the end of the recordings, which always balances out the straight time in the rest of the song. 

Of course, like all the early recording stars, Denny recorded some coons songs here and there, but with him, they're pretty uncommon. One of the few coon songs he did was "Ain't that A Shame", and "Just because She Made Them Goo Goo Eyes", of which all versions of both recordings are fantastic. Noe can compare to Denny's wild side on his 1901 Zon-O-Phone of "Aint You my Lulu"(transferred too fast though...). Damn, Denny really is all over the place on that recording. It's pretty much the wildest of Denny's recordings I've heard so far, because the piano accompaniment is just as weird and spontaneous. of course, it's one of those in-between Zon-0-Phone's where the pianist could be Fred Hager, Hylands, or Banta, with that, I don't know who the pianist is on this one. That really is unfortunate, since the piano on that is fantastic, but it sounds like too much of a hybrid of all three pianists listed just above to be anyone in particular, so maybe it's the fabled Fred Hager. 

Hager might be more of a pianist that we've all cut him out to be...Just saying....

Denny's recordings can be compared to some of Arthur Collins' earliest recordings, though of course Denny's wails are sometimes a little more prominent and overkilled than Collins'. Just to get this point across, here's Collins' 1902 Zon-o-phone of "Just Because she Made them Goo Goo Eyes", and here's Denny's 1902 version of the same thing. The good thing about these two recordings is that the piano accompaniment on both of them is fantastic, in different ways, because it's likely they're two different pianists. Hager is likely on the Collins version, and Hylands is on the Denny version. Collins sings it much more like we would assumed Denny to, but interestingly, Denny sings it very straight, with little to none of his signature wails. Strangely enough, it almost seems like the star of the Denny recording isn't Denny! It actually seems that they might have intentionally made the piano louder than Denny, because it's suspiciously loud and well-recorded. It's actually not too strange for when this was recorded, since for some reason, for about the entirety of 1902 or so, the piano was always balanced weird on Columbia records, in fact, the piano was balanced in such a way that the singers were almost drowned out by the piano(wow, how Hylands must have been elated they were doing that....), wish I knew why, but it's always on 1902 Columbia records. They are all recorded just before Charles Prince took over the Columbia orchestra, hmm... Wonder if there's a correlation there? It's records like the Denny recording above and this one here that illustrate this strange effect on such a short period of Columbia records. Personally, I really like that this was a "thing" for almost the entirety of 1902, it makes Rag-Time pianists really listen, and actually be able to listen to the piano accompaniment. 

Denny's wails are really great to hear, and make his recordings much more fun to listen to, though it's unfortunate that he didn't live into the 1910's, where he could have been in silent films, and we could see his fantastic and hilarious range of facial expressions. The picture at the beginning of this post is only a slight example of one of many great expressions Denny had when he made records. 

Hope you enjoyed this! 

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