Learning To Lip Sync: Five Early (Really Early!) Music Videos
by Nate Hopper
Back in 1940, some bars and nightclubs began replacing their jukeboxes with a newfangled contraption called a Panoram that could play short musical videos. Patrons couldn’t choose the order of the movies they saw; they’d plunk in a dime and whichever of the eight three-minute videos was next on the reel would be projected onto the machine’s two-foot screen. Although the reels sometimes featured sketch comedians, most of the movies showed quite literal enactments of a pre-recorded song, some by musical greats in their prime like Louis Armstrong, others by artists who were then still on their way to stardom, like Duke Ellington, Doris Day, Lena Horne and a young Liberace (if you can imagine that).
Called ‘Soundies’ — as Time noted for its readers, there’s an “s” on it even when referring to the singular — these videos were produced until 1947. Today they’re three-minute time capsules, revealing a nation preoccupied with WWII and stuck on stereotypes. It was also an America where pop artists were still figuring out sex appeal and how to use a camera, and who didn’t have lip-syncing quite mastered. Some of these Soundies are still fun to watch, others, less fun. Here are some of the best to be found on YouTube.
“Honeysuckle Rose” by Fats Waller
Fats Waller was known for his penchant for eating “only a dozen pork chops” when he wasn’t feeling hungry and a Salisbury steak every three hours when he was. During performances, he also liked shuffle his way over to a bottle — likely of Old Grand Dad whiskey — waiting on the wing of the stage. The bridge to “Honeysuckle Rose” was almost a couple of drinks away from existence. According to Fats’ son, Maurice Waller, in the biography he wrote on his father with Anthony Calabrese, Fats Waller, had it not been for Fats’ collaborator, Andy Razaf, writing the eight bars down after Fats had hummed them to him over a bar’s phone, the three gins Fats drowned as Andy worked them out back at the studio would’ve washed them away from memory.
“I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” by Duke Ellington, with Ivie Anderson
It’s a little surprising to see Ivie Anderson in a plaid dress in this one. In an article from Downbeat from the early 1940s, Ivie said, “When I first started with Duke [Ellington], I used to wear colored dresses. When he suggested I wear only white, I tried it out and found it so effective that I’ve been doing it ever since.” Anderson said she had it good with Ellington; in 1931, Anderson had signed a four-week contract to become the girl singer in his orchestra, and then held her spot for over 11 years. Many consider that time — before the 1943 Carnegie Hall shows that helped Ellington win enduring acclaim — as an important transitional period for Duke’s sound; during those years, people stopped dancing at his performances (as they did at other musicians’ shows) and began just listening. In his autobiography, Music is My Mistress, Ellington wrote of Ivie that, “every girl singer we’ve had since has had to try to prevail over the Ivie Anderson image.”
“A Study in Brown” by Reg Kehoe and his Marimba Queens
The bassist in this, Frank Denunzio Jr. (who passed away in 2005), is just wow.
“Lazy Bones” by Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Carmichael was political enough to try and start a fistfight with Humphrey Bogart over politics (his wife broke it up). The lyrics to his song, “Lazybones,” which sold 350,000 copies in three months, as well as its Soundies, are tinged with racial stereotypes. But the way he tells it, he didn’t mean it like that: “It was the coin of the day, the way people talked. It was part of our world. Nobody likes it… But the lyrics weren’t meant to be in any way deprecating, or ‘dissing’ anybody.” When writing with a collaborator the song’s follow-up, “Small Fry,” he was less guarded — though the song was heavily edited by Carmichael before its release. And Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong went on to cover “Lazy Bones” together — listening to it might put you through a range of feelings.
“The Twelfth Street Rag” by Liberace
Only a few years before this was recorded, Liberace — then known as Walter — had been playing in a small concert hall in Wisconsin when, after he finished performing his planned set, he asked the audience for a request for his encore. As Bob Thomas writes in Liberace: The True Story, someone called out, “”Three Little Fishes” — the song with the chorus, “fim, ittle fishies, fim if you can, and they fam and the fam all over the dam” — to some laughter. And so Walter started back up, working his way through some Chopin flourishes, when he then began weaving the “Three Little Fishes” line in to the audience’s delight. He kept going, adapting the tune to the stylings of Mozart, Beethoven and John Philip Sousa. Many say it was that performance that taught Liberace how exciting the combination of classical and pop music could be, which led to songs like the one above and this one.
Nate Hopper is a summer Awl reporter.