ON THE RECORD: A Christmas Story, Plus Mini-Albums of Shuffle Along and Blackbirds of 1928

By Steven Suskin
26 Feb 2012

Cover art

Songs from Shuffle Along/Songs from Blackbirds [Masterworks Broadway]
We're all familiar — or should be familiar — with the series of studio cast recordings that Goddard Lieberson and Columbia Records made in the '50s and early '60s. These undertook to present theatrical renditions of Broadway scores from the pre-LP era, and some of them remain indispensable. Columbia was king of the original cast album, at least from 1949 (when it overtook the originator of the form, Decca Records). Far less familiar, and hidden from memory, was a series of EPs from Columbia's competitor RCA. EPs were extended play recordings; in 1952, when they were introduced, they were seven-inch 45s which could hold up to seven-and-a-half minutes per side (as opposed to the usual four-minute 45).

These EPs, thus, contained four tracks and were released as the "RCA Victor Show Time Series." At least 16 mini-collections were made in 1952-53, ranging from Victor Herbert's Mlle. Modiste (1905) to Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (1948). While four songs give only the briefest taste of what a musical sounded like, RCA provided top Broadway conductors of the day (like Milton Rosenstock, Lehman Engel and Jay Blackton) along with interesting Broadway performers (including John Raitt, Helen Gallagher, Jack Cassidy, Lisa Kirk, Harold Lang, Doretta Morrow, Brenda Lewis and Patricia Neway). Some of these recordings used original orchestrations, so there are a number of highly interesting tracks salted away.

As RCA switched to 33-1/3 RPM long playing records, many of the titles were paired on 10-inch LPs (as opposed to the usual 12 inches). One of the two-fer LPs has now been sprung from the vaults by Masterworks Broadway, featuring the Show Time recordings of Eubie Blake's 1921 Shuffle Along and the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields revue Blackbirds of 1928 (here simply called "Blackbirds").

The Shuffle Along recording stemmed from that show's forlorn 1952 revival, which shuttered after just four performances at the Broadway. Thelma Carpenter and Avon Long are featured on three songs (including the big hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry"); Louise Woods and Laurence Watson sing "Love Will Find a Way." All four appeared in the revival, although apparently not singing the same songs. Composer Blake conducts. Carpenter also stars on the Blackbirds recording, singing three of the four tracks. The fourth is the hit of the show, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," from Cab Calloway. Engel conducts.

I've always found the score for Blackbirds to be far more interesting than that of Shuffle Along; the shows were produced only seven years apart, but a lot happened musically in the interim. The eight songs included support my hypothesis; the other three Blackbird selections — "Diga-Diga Doo," "I Must Have that Man" and "Doin' the New Low-Down" — instantly worked their way back into my musical memory, and onto my iPod. As for Shuffle Along, I'm still not wild about anything but Harry.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"” (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)