The nightclubs, theatres, hotel cabarets and speakeasies of the mid-twenties brought forward several delectable young ladies who looked good and sounded even better when alone on stage with only a pianist and a solitary lime spotlight. Libby Holman, Marion Harris, Lee Morse and Annette Hanshaw were among the most sought after, but the girl who combined the maximum of smoochiness, pathos and sharp attack was the startlingly attractive Ruth Etting.
She arrived in Chicago at the age of seventeen from her hometown of David City, Nebraska, and enrolled at the Chicago Academy Of Fine Arts, where she studied costume design. To help pay the tuition fees she got a part-time job as a milliner in a hat shop owned by Maybelle and Milton Weil. Unbeknown to Ruth, they also ran a successful music publishing company and very taken with her striking good looks, they arranged an audition for her as a chorus girl at Chicago’s Rainbow Gardens. To her suprise, she got the job and was soon working hard as a dancer, with occasional singing sessions in hotels and other nightclubs.
In 1922 she married Martin Snyder, otherwise ‘Moe The Gimp’, and with the aid of his somewhat dubious connections landed a radio job, broadcasting with Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra over WSL Chicago. The broadcasts were heard by Frank Walker, head of Artists and Repertoire for Columbia Records who promptly signed her for the label. Her first release in mid-1926 were all up-tempo ‘Flapper’ numbers, featuring the musical character of a liberated young American woman – equal, if not better than any young man she might meet, and anticipating Women’s lib by fifty years. Could I?, I Certainly Could!, Lonesome And Sorry and But I Do, You Know I Do heard on this album are all from this period and Ruth is deftly accompanied by Rube Bloom, possibly the busiest piano player around at the time. He played for Ruth Etting on almost every recording date until 1929 and even after his regular place in the studio had been taken over by Frank Signorelli he still turned up to play whenever he was available. Frank Walker and his bosses were delighted by the sales of the discs and with some timely publicity and marketing created the public persona of Ruth Etting as ‘The Recording Sweetheart. ‘
In 1927, Ruth and Moe moved to New York. Although their personal life was horrendous, Moe was an excellent manager and fixer and persuaded the great Florenz Ziegfeld to cast her in his ‘Ziegfeld Follies of 1927.’ This was her big break, and she took it with enthusiasm. On her first night at the New Amdsterdam Theatre she stopped the show with her sexy, rocking performance of Irving Berlin’s Shakin’ The Blues Away. After this success Ruth had a short season at the Paramount Theatre with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, where she sang with the band’s young crooner, Bing Crosby, and met the talented members of the Whiteman entourage, many of whom became good friends and accompanied her on later recording dates.
Convinced that he had a new star, Ziegfeld gave her the female lead in the new Eddie Cantor vehicle ‘Whoopee!’ In spite of the jovial title, the musical was based on Owen Davis’s play ‘The Nervous Wreck’ with Cantor playing the part of a twitching hypochondriac. For Ruth’s big spot, Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn came up with Love Me Or Leave Me which became an immediate hit. The lyric uncomfortably mirrored her own home life with Moe The Gimp, and twenty-seven years later was used as the title and theme of the film biography of Ruth Etting, starring Doris Day and James Cagney. Her most popular and durable song came in 1930 when she starred in Ed Wynn’s ‘Simple Simon’ and Rodgers and Hart gave her the entrancing Ten Cents A Dance, the story of a dance-hall hostess at the Palace Ballroom, one step up from prostitution, forced to dance with all corners for the price of a dime ticket. By the close of the Twenties, Ruth Etting in a show was a guarantee of success.
In the Thirties, Ruth Etting’s career continued in revues and musical comedies and she branched out into radio in shows sponsored by Chesterfield Cigarettes, Oldsmobile and Kelloggs and into films such as ‘Roman Scandals’, ‘Hips, Hips, Hooray’ and ‘Gift Of The Gab.’ She made a memorable visit to Britain in 1936 when she starred at the Adelphi in Transatlantic Rhythm and made records with Jay Wilbur’s Band for Rex at the Crystalate Studios in West Hampstead. (They would in time become the Decca studios.) She made a few more sides in New York the following year, but tastes were changing and her wistful songs of unrequited love were going out of fashion in the new era of mechanised swing bands. Sensibly, she retired while still at the top, and apart from a few guest appearances has enjoyed forty years of semi-seclusion on her ranch in Colorado Springs, free from the shadows of Chicago gangsters, living a happy and fulfilled life.
Throughout her ten-year recording career, Ruth Etting had the pick of America’s songwriters and musicians working with her. The list of composers and lyricists reads like a Who’s Who of Tin Pan Alley – Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, the ukulele-playing Buddy de Sylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson, Johnny Green, Yip Harburg, Al Dubin, Joe Burke, Jack Yellen, Milton Ager, Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson offered her the pick of their output and in return she produced definitive classic performances. Although by no means a jazz singer, she had that incredible sense of warmth, timing and projection that is always associated with the best rhythm singers. She worked with the finest jazz sidemen around; Venuti and Lang, the Dorseys, Joe Tarto, Frank Signorelli, Arthur Schutt, Dick McDonough, Rube and Mickey Bloom and Manny Klein can all be heard on the tracks of this album, as well as two speciality performers, accordion ace Mario Perry on Shakin’ The Blues Away and a very, very, young Larry Adler embellishing Turner Layton’s If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight with his unique harmonica styling.
Like most of the popular singers in the Twenties, Ruth Etting occasionally turned up on record as the vocalist with dance-bands, her name in tiny print under that of the band, if in fact credited at all. She worked with several of the most popular bands, including Ben Selvin and Ted Lewis, but the example heard on this album is Hello Baby recorded in July 1926 with the little known Art Kahn Orchestra. Her brief ‘vocal refrain’ is delivered with great verve and is atypical of the peppy outgoing songs with which Ruth delighted audiences in the bootleg era. Her later, classic recordings present a deeper, wiser voice, reflecting sadly and introspectively on what were often problems very close to her own life. But cheerful or sad, fox-trot or ballad, both sides of Ruth Etting’s repertoire are always offered with truth, feeling and an abiding sense of the composer’s intentions. Quite simply, she was great….
© 1981 KEVIN DALY