Simultaneously popularized by radio broadcasts and phonograph records, Billy Jones (1889-1940) and Ernest Hare (1883-1939) were the most successful vaudeville pair of the 1920s, even more so than Gus Van and Joe Schenck or Ed Gallagher and Al Shean. Sponsored by Happiness Candy Stores, they became famous as the Happiness Boys, but also shapeshifted into "The Taystee Loafers" when working for Taystee Bread, "The Interwoven Pair" when affiliated with Interwoven Socks and "The Flit Soldiers" as slaphappy spokesmen for Standard Oil. Living Era's marvelous tribute to the Happiness Boys brings together two dozen of their best recordings made between April 1921 and October 1929. Although Bert Williams had the closest working relationship with the bassoon in all of vaudeville, the instrument is sometimes audible alongside cornet, flute and trombone behind the Happiness Boys. Their mainstay accompanists were pianist Dave Kaplan and banjo wizard Harry Reser, a duo often billed as "The Radio Twins." The Happiness Boys' mirthful methodology incorporated friendly conversational passages into the songs; sometimes they'd stop the music entirely, tell a joke, laugh heartily and finish the tune. Most of vaudeville's most effective maneuvers are in evidence here. One trusty tactic consisted of setting up the anticipated rhyme only to violate the expectation with a different and less succinct word -- "trousers" rather than "pants" for example. "Etiquette Blues," like "Limehouse Blues" and dozens of other songs published during the '20s, is not a blues at all but a topical novelty packed with outrageous advice. For example: eat your spaghetti the way a chicken swallows a worm, and wipe your face with the bread.
"Yes! We Have No Bananas," a stereotyped send-up of the archetypal Italian fruit merchant, is followed with its sequel, "I've Got the 'Yes! We Have No Bananas' Blues." This peculiar number, handled by Jones himself in front of a studio orchestra, resurfaced weeks later when it was recorded by Eva Taylor and Clarence Williams' Blue Five with clarinetist Sidney Bechet. "Old King Tut" makes a merry mishmash of ancient history; "The Village Blacksmith" contains scrambled passages from Giuseppe Verdi and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. "Don't Bring Lulu" and "If You Knew Susie" were veritable pop anthems of the '20s; "She's the Sweetheart of Six Other Guys" takes cheekiness to yet another level. Although the public instantly identified with dizzy ditties like "Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?" there was often less than wholesome humor crawling around beneath the contrived naughty innocence of vaudeville. "How Do You Do?" at one point incorporates ethnic slurring in the form of imitation Chinese; "Hi Lee Hi Lo" is entirely devoted to making Asians sound silly. This kind of annoying, ignorance-based bigotry resurfaced years later in Mickey Rooney's shockingly racist buck-toothed Japanese caricature, as meddling Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 motion picture Breakfast at Tiffany's. Cruelty has always played a role in the U.S. entertainment industry. "You Tell Her -- I Stutter" makes fun of people with speech impediments.
Musically speaking, Walter Donaldson's "That Certain Party" might just be their masterpiece; here Billy Jones sings admirably in German without denigrating the Germans; he also yodels during "I Miss My Swiss." "Henry's Made a Lady out of Lizzie" refers to Henry Ford's Model A, a redesigned Model T or Tin Lizzie; "I Can't Sleep in the Movies Any More" lampoons the newly developed motion picture soundtrack technology. Waxed at two different sessions in October and November 1928, "Twisting the Dials" is undeniably the weirdest and most unusual recording this duo ever made. Issued on flipsides of a 12" 78 rpm record, this wild mélange of music, leg-pulling announcements, random chatter and sound effects imitates the experience of a dial-twiddling radio listener randomly roaming from station to station. Using pre-recorded 78 rpm samples of ethnic, rural, opera, chamber, novelty, jazz and march music, the Happiness Boys set a precedent for later comedic mixed media routines; the Firesign Theatre's "Ralph Spoilsport Motors" sequence at the beginning of their album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?" was most certainly inspired by "Twisting the Dials."