Joseph E. Howard hit the road as an eight-year-old runaway and landed in St. Louis, where he survived by singing in saloons and peddling newspapers. Vaudeville was where he obviously belonged, and at the age of 11, the boy soprano was back on the road as a performing member of a touring variety show. When he was 17, Joe met up with a young lady by the name of Ida Emerson who, in Howard's lifelong matrimonial progression, was destined to be wife number two. Touring the Midwestern vaudeville circuit, they livened up Chicago and then descended upon New York, where they enjoyed a warm reception at Tony Pastor's Music Hall on 14th Street. The song that brought them lasting fame and success was a syncopated novelty telephone number called "Hello, Ma Baby," published in 1899. It sold over a million copies of sheet music within a couple of months. A sequel, "Goodbye, My Lady Love," appeared in 1904. Howard performed and composed his ditties in Chicago from 1905 to 1915. He was responsible for a slue of melodies with titles like "On the Boulevard," "On a Saturday Night," "What's the Use of Dreaming?," "I Don't Like Your Family," "When You First Kiss the Last Girl You Love," "Blow the Smoke Away," and "A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother." The tune that is invariably linked with his name is "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?," a cry-in-your-beer waltz first performed in the 1909 Broadway musical The Prince of To-Night. Howard appears to have been steadily less active after 1915, although during the next quarter of a century, he never fully ceased performing. His second wind occurred in 1939 and lasted well into the middle of the next decade, as Howard collaborated with raspy-voiced bawdy showgirl Beatrice Kay on a Gay Nineties radio program, dredging up his earlier successes and delighting the listening public with apparently irresistible examples of already long-gone American entertainment. Howard made a few phonograph recordings, for the Decca and Vocalion labels. In 1947, a motion picture called I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now was based upon Howard's life. It starred Mark Stevens and had the singing voice of Buddy Clark dubbed in. Suddenly, a lawsuit surfaced in response to the release of this film. Plaintiff Harold Orlob claimed that he had once worked for the defendant back in Chicago, generating extra songs for Howard's musical productions. Howard had automatically assumed the rights to all of those songs, including the big hit in question. Orlob's suit was successful, but he refused any kind of financial compensation. All he wanted was to have his name on the song without anyone else horning in for unearned credit. Yet the song continues to be associated with Howard, who appeared in clubs, over the radio, and on television. Even after retiring, he emerged from time to time in order to sing at benefit shows for worthy causes. Joe Howard dropped dead during a curtain call at the Chicago Opera House on May 19, 1961.
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