A native of Circleville, OH, Ted Lewis is said to have organized his first vaudeville band in 1910, recorded with Earl Fuller in 1917, and started making records for Columbia with his own jazz band in 1919. Historical motion pictures exist of Lewis prancing around wearing a ratty top hat, lustily hollering his famous slogan, "Is everybody happy?," while his bandmembers, sometimes forced to wear Pagliacci-style clown outfits, did their best to play something resembling jazz. Experienced collectors of mossy old 78-rpm phonograph platters can testify to the existence of a mysterious category of vaudeville, ragtime, pre-jazz, and early jazz records, decorated with curious ancient labels bearing the names Wilbur Sweatman, Harry Yerkes, Isham Jones, and Ted Lewis. Generations of jazz critics have done everything in their power to avoid attracting too much attention to this fascinating and largely overlooked region of early-20th century music. Isham Jones has been granted nominal recognition for having composed a number of songs that later became jazz standards. Sweatman is mentioned as a footnote to the Ellington dynasty, and poor Yerkes has all but disappeared. Ted Lewis is -- and always was -- impossible to ignore. Like Al Jolson, Lewis is an easy target for informed but often unfair criticism. The ever-cynical Eddie Condon once quipped: "Ted Lewis could make a clarinet speak -- and it usually said 'put me back in my case.'" A more charitable assessment of this man's musical legacy is perhaps overdue. Most of the Ted Lewis recordings that have been compiled and reissued since the invention of the compact disc date from his "authentic" jazz period, from about 1925 through 1938. This is the time line represented by Living Era's very enjoyable tribute to Ted Lewis, issued in 1999. What keeps these recordings pertinent to "legitimate" jazz studies is the presence of certain indisputably real jazz players. Trombonist George Brunies; cornetist Muggsy Spanier; clarinetists Frankie Teschemacher, Benny Goodman, and Jimmy Dorsey; most excitingly Fats Waller, who sings and pounds the piano on the famous sessions of March 5 and 6, 1931; and a surprise appearance by Rudy Van Gelder, who played drums in the 16-piece band responsible for a very Hollywood-sounding rendition of Lewis' theme song, "When My Baby Smiles at Me," recorded in Los Angeles on July 16, 1938. There's plenty of real jazz in here. It's just mingled with corn, and corn is an essential component in U.S. culture. The corn should be embraced from time to time, and this Ted Lewis compilation is the right tool for the job.
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AllMusic Review by arwulf arwulf