Archive for the ‘The Thing Itself’ Category


Here’s something I have no logical reason to own: A player piano roll. Of course, it’s a “St. James Infirmary” player piano roll, so when it popped up on eBay, I bid on it. And I won: $11.50 plus shipping. It arrived yesterday. For a little while I felt pretty silly as opened the package and assessed my new possession. But that feeling passed quickly. I’m thrilled to have it.

I have to thank this site’s most valuable friend, Mr. Robert Harwood. Partly for egging me on to bid. Partly for having the good sense to do a little Web research related to this item that I will share with you now.

One of the reasons I was at least somewhat tempted to snap this up from the moment I saw it is that the package notes the copyright holder as Gotham Music Service, Inc. — the company of Irving Mills, who claimed authorship of “SJI” under the name Joe Primrose. (See the 2005 SJI essay for more on that.) I hardly paid attention to the bit on the package that says, “Played by J. Lawrence Cook.”


But as Mr. Harwood found, J. Lawrence Cook was a big deal in the player piano business. According to the 1976 obituary reprinted on the web site of the Automatic Musical Instrument Collector’s Association, he was “sometimes known as Piano Roll Cook because of his career as an arranger, composer and maker of the rolls for player pianos.” The maker of this roll, Q.R.S., was one of several companies he worked for over the course of a career that stretched from the 1920s, until his death. “Mr. Cook was a friend of such jazz pianists as W. C. Handy, Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. Teddy Wilson was one of his pupils.”

Another site found Mr. Harwood — it seems connected to one of Mr. Cook’s descendants — includes a couple of quotations from Q.R.S. catalogs. From 1974:

J. Lawrence Cook is indeed a legendary name in the Player Piano industry. His first QRS recording was issued in 1921, and Mr. Cook has been recording music rolls ever since! “Cookie”, as his friends call him, was the only artist to be retained full time by QRS during the lean Depression years and is responsible for almost every QRS Roll issued from 1931 until 1961!

And from one published in 1990:

J. Lawrence Cook … was the undisputed master of piano roll recording for over 40 years. Between 1921 and 1961, he recorded thousands of rolls for QRS which remain unequalled for their balance and imagination.

2.jpgMost remarkable of the links Mr. Harwood passed along, however, is this one. It leads to a site where you can actually hear a MIDI version of Cook’s “SJI” roll being played!

How does it sound? A little odd, to me. It’s done as a fox trot. So it has this sort of jarringly upbeat, carnival quality to it. Or maybe like something you’d now hear dubbed over a silent movie — people jerking around weirdly on screen, throwing pies at each other.

It goes by really fast, but on the second and third listens I was able to get over that initial impression, and it grew on me. It has a certain seductive … pizazz. Not a word I normally associate with “SJI,” but that’s okay. In fact, it’s good.

roll.jpgAnyway, as I opened my new (old) Q.R.S. box and unfurled the roll enough to see the pattern of puncture marks that somehow converts into music in a player piano, I took a moment to ponder the strange history of technology and song. I had to give the MIDI version another listen. What better sound track could I have?

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Okeh 8657

From to time, the original 78 rpm record of “St. James Infirmary” as performed by Louis Armstrong pops up on eBay. I watch the bidding, but I don’t get involved. I’d love to own the thing itself, but my turntable doesn’t do 78, and then there’s the matter of the cost. In the most recent auction for a copy of Okeh 8657 (“in stunning E+ condition and is still in its original Okeh sleeve”), which ended Wednesday, the winning bid was $245.28.

A little more than I’m willing to pay.

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It has occurred to me, of course, that I ought to take a look at the thing itself: The physical record that contained the Louis Armstrong rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” from 1928. While the authorship of the song tends to be credited to Joe Primrose on modern-day Cds and anthologies like the one I own, that’s obviously not the same thing as seeing who got credit at the time. What never occurred to me, for whatever reason, was using eBay to locate this object. I guess I always thought finding it would be a matter some high-hassle activity like going to record fairs or tracking down collectors or something.

The eBay option did, however, occur to Robert Harwood (who out-did my “St. James Infirmary” essay in writing an impressive 80-page book called “A Rake’s Progress”). In November 2005 he dropped me a line about this: Somebody was selling the 78 rpm Armstrong version on eBay. Even better, the seller had posted an image of the label, so for my purposes it wasn’t even necessary to buy the thing. It served Mr. Harwood’s purposes, too: He had also wondered about who got writing credit on the original physical version. What it says on the record, just under the title of the song, is: “(Redman).”

In the most recent version of the “St. James Infirmary” essay, I have a one sentence about a “maddening” stray reference to Don Redman as the song’s composer. I’m not immediately certain where that reference was, but I’ll track it down again at some point. In any case, this was a great find by the estimable Mr. Harwood, and here are his further comments:

“Don Redman played clarinet in the Hot Five – I mean, the Savoy Ballroom Five. Or maybe it was alto sax. Depends upon who you read. I can hear a clarinet, can’t identify a saxophone. Anyway, he played on St. James Infirmary – and in the song ‘Tight Like This,’ recorded the same day, his is the high-pitched voice that interjects ‘Oh, it’s tight like that, Louis.’

“Before playing with Louis, Redman played and arranged songs for Fletcher Henderson. Allmusic.com has a not bad biography of Redman, plus a list of songs he wrote, like “Save It, Pretty Mama.” One of his great strengths, it appears, was as a song arranger. And as you know, in those days if you arranged a song, a “traditional song,” you might take credit for its composition (unless your manager or band leader beat you to it). Hell, that remains a practice. Johnny Cash, or instance, took the writing credit for ‘Delia’ ten years ago after reworking the lyrics. Same melody.”

This is excellent information. It leaves open the questions that nag and tantalize me most, such as whether Armstrong knew the song back in New Orleans and that’s why he chose to record it; whether Redman (born in West Virginia, apparently) or somebody else was the one who suggested it; how Irving Mills (Joe Primrose) happened to hear it and end up getting writer credit, and so on. But still. Excellent information.

I would love to own that 78, but I didn’t bid on it. It ended up selling for $255, to someone in Japan.

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