August 25, 1996

Tantalizing Tingles: A Discography of Early Ragtime, Jazz, and Novelty Syncopated Piano Recordings, 1889-1934.  By Ross Laird.  Greenwood Press, 1995.  258 pp.  ISBN: 0-313-29240-X.  $65.00.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Australian discographer Ross Laird has made a valuable contribution to the literature with the publication of this new book of early popular piano recordings.  Originally intending to list only ragtime, jazz and novelty pieces, he wisely expanded his coverage to include almost any solo (or duo) piano recording outside of the classical and ethnic fields.  Thus polkas, galops and blues vie for attention with all manner of popular songs (we may be excused if we do not immediately think of “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame” as a “tantalizing tingle”).  The guiding rule for inclusion is that the piano is the principal featured instrument, so vocalists accompanied by piano are not included (sorry, no Sissle and Blake).  Coverage is international.

The book opens with a helpful essay outlining the history of popular piano recording, beginning with the cylinders Max Franklin made for the North American Phonograph Company in the summer of 1889.  After this brief moment of glory, Franklin was evidently never heard of again; one wonders if any of his records survive.  Also recorded for NAPCO at the very inception of commercial recording, in 1889, were H. Giesemann, Edward Issler and George Schweinfest.  The latter two are better known for their later careers as a bandleader and piccolo soloist, respectively.

Among those who followed were C.H.H. Booth, Frank Banta, Sr. and Jr., Felix Arndt, Eubie Blake, Phil Ohman and Victor Arden, Zez Confrey (immortalized by his “Kitten on the Keys”), Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Raie da Costa (in England), Lee Sims and literally hundreds of others.  The repertoire is fascinating.  The earliest days contain very few, though interesting, examples of piano ragtime.  But beginning in 1912 there was a surge of such recordings, by artists including Arndt, Mike Bernard, Joseph Batten, Carlisle & Wellmon, Melville Ellis and Melville Gideon.  Jazz piano emerged in the early 1920s, with artists such as Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson, concurrent with a popular vogue for syncopated novelties by the likes of Arden & Ohman, Roy Bargy, and Ray Perkins (whose syncopated “Look For the Silver Lining” on Edison 50806 is one of my personal favorites).

The main listing is by artist, with each artist’s piano recordings listed chronologically.  The book provides full discographical detail, including recording location and date, matrix, take and original (but usually not subsequent) issues.  Special attention has been paid to the very earliest years, with new research on obscure turn-of-the-century piano cylinders and discs.  A section at the beginning clearly lays out the book’s conventions, as well as details about the labels listed.  There is a not surprisingly short bibliography, as few have previously tilled this field, and at the back an index to song titles, which includes composer credits.  Documentation of “sources” is lamentably brief, following the practice of too many current discographies by giving only the vaguest and most generalized idea where specific data came from.  This lack of specific attribution will no doubt cause future scholars headaches.  A few pages of black and white photographs of record labels round out the contents.

The only problem with the book’s organization–and it is merely an annoyance, not a fatal flaw–is the separate section headed “non solo instrumental recordings by selected pianists.”  This is a completely separate A-Z section which occupies nearly 40 pages after the main A-Z listings, and contains very abbreviated information on “other recordings” by many of the same artists, and also others.  For example, Eubie Blake appears in the main listings with full discographical detail on a dozen or so piano solos and duos made between 1917-1921.  Then we find him again in section two with three vague entries indicating that he also made records with his orchestra.  Two of these give record numbers (Victor 18791 and Emerson 10519), but no titles, while the other merely indicates that he recorded something for the Crown label sometime during 1931.  (His orchestra also appeared on Victor in 1931, but that is missed.)  No titles or other specifics are given for any entries in this section, so all we know is that the artist specified recorded something for a particular label in a given year, or over a span of years.  Nothing else.

Not only is this frustratingly vague compared to the immaculate detail in section one, but it means we have to check two different places for each artist we are interested in (some artists are in one section but not the other).  The author reminds us repeatedly that section two is incomplete, but I think it would have been better to either do it right and incorporate the information into the main listings, or to omit it entirely.

That aside, the research that went into section one of Tantalizing Tingles is exemplary, and in many cases ground-breaking.  There are inevitably a few minor errors or omissions, but very few that I could find, and they do not detract from the overall accomplishment.  The book can be recommended without hesitation to those interested in the field.


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