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The Early Days (1917-1921)

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Album Review

While many inhabitants of the 21st century may pride themselves on being mean, lean, slick, and postmodern, certain elements of contemporary culture trace directly back to popular entertainment before during and after the First World War. Singing comedian Eddie Cantor's oldest phonograph recordings constitute a body of work that is a perfect case in point, and the collection Early Days 1917-1921, which was released in 1998 by the Original Cast label, appears to have been the first edition on compact disc to focus so meticulously on these delectable delights from long ago. Preceded only by an old Biograph LP called Rare Early Recordings (1919-1921), Early Days 1917-1921 contains nearly every Vocalion, Emerson, and Pathe recording he made up through June of 1921, only omitting his very first Victor record from July 1917, which held two titles that he redid for Aeolian Vocalion four months later: "That's the Kind of Baby for Me" and "The Modern Maiden's Prayer." In a triumph of thoroughness, the producers of this collection chose to augment its 35 titles with ten alternate takes, so that "Margie" and "Give Me the Sultan's Harem" each appear in three consecutive versions, allowing for the kind of comparative listening usually found on chronologically structured jazz retrospectives. This marvelous little goldmine of classic Cantor, suitable for a full immersion in his energetic and at times cheeky persona, parallels several early Al Jolson collections. There's even a cover of Jolson's signature tune "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet." While Cantor was younger than Jolson and looked up to him with reverence, the two men shared certain stylistic traits and succeeded as recording artists during a time when the phonograph industry was still getting established. Topically, Cantor's early works are packed with historic references ("You Don't Need Wine to Have a Wonderful Time" from prohibition and Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now" from the period immediately following the Great War) along with the timeless themes of love and sexual attraction. Vaudeville, where Cantor cut his teeth, and Tin Pan Alley, the music publishing district that provided much of his material, were hotbeds of ethnic stereotyping. The evidence in this playlist includes "I Wish That I'd Been Born in Borneo," "Timbuctoo," and "Palesteena," which was also recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The one truly offensive item is "The Argentines, (The Portuguese, The Armenians) And the Greeks." This cold-blooded, disparaging assault on a broad range of "aliens" from foreign southern latitudes, was also recorded by several of Cantor's contemporaries and seems a bit strange coming from the lips of a son of Russian Jewish immigrants. But that's show biz.


Born: January 31, 1892 in New York, NY

Genre: Vocal

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s

No other entertainer proved successful in as many fields as Eddie Cantor during the 1920s and '30s. Nicknamed "Banjo Eyes" and "the Apostle of Pep" for his endless reserves of energy and showmanship (he would literally jump around the stage while performing his favorite numbers), he began his career touring in vaudeville, was promoted to the more legitimate theater of Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies, recorded many hits for Columbia, translated the success to film during the late '20s, became the biggest...
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