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Tracks Unwrapped

Things Ain't What They Used To Be


Bowling Alley


They turned our local palais into a bowling alley .....


No, wait a minute! That's not Duke Ellington! If that was the song you were expecting we are unwrapping something else. Even then, if you look up the lyrics for Things Ain't What They Used To Be on Google you find something strange. On some lyric sites it says that the lyrics were written by Johnny Mercer and go:


This is the G. I. Jive
Man alive
It starts with the bugler blowin' reveille over your bed when you arrive
Jack, that's the G. I. Jive
Jump in your suit
Make a salute

The concept of things not being what they used to be is not new - self explanatory - but if you started out thinking of bowling alleys and the Lionel Bart show, that was 'Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be'. 'Fings' is a musical comedy about Cockney low-life characters in the 1950s, including spivs, prostitutes, teddy-boys and corrupt policemen. If you would like to hear that song with some nostalgic Fings Aint What They Used To Be showfootage of Bristol click here. Someone on Youtube asks: 'Why do you use a Cockney song to showcase Bristol?' Well, 'Fings' is based on an original play by Bristolian Frank Norman, even though he did leave the West Country for London. 'Fings' was recorded by Max Bygraves, Winifred Attwell and Russ Conway - shall we? ... Perhaps not. (Did you know that apparently honky tonk/ ragtime pianist Winifred Atwell went to the Royal Academy of Music and was the first black person to have a number-one hit in the UK Singles Chart?).

No, Things Ain't What They Used To Be is a number with music by Mercer Ellington and lyrics by Ted Persons. (Could it be that some lyrics sites have mixed up Mercer Ellington with Johnny Mercer?). Either way, written in 1942, it has an interesting history.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers was founded in 1914 for the collection of royalties for the broadcast or public performance of music. In March, 1940, ASCAP proposed a new contract calling for a 100 percent increase in radio’s rates over the previous year. In response, the broadcasting industry formed its own licensing organisation, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). By the end of 1940, 650 broadcasters had signed up with BMI and only about 200 radio stations continued to use the ASCAP catalogue. By the end of 1941, ASCAP and the broadcasting industry were obliged to negotiate a new contract.

'On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians, at the instigation of union president James Petrillo, started a strike against the major American recording companies because of disagreements over royalty payments. Beginning at midnight, July 31, no union musician could make commercial recordings for any record company. That meant that a union musician was allowed to participate on radio programs and other kinds of musical entertainment, but not in a recording session. The 1942-44 musicians' strike (was) the longest Hollywood strike in the world. The strike did not affect musicians performing on live radio shows, in concerts, or, after October 27th 1943.'

It also excluded musicians on special recordings made by the record companies for V-Discs for distribution to the armed forces fighting World War II, because V–Discs were not available to the general public.

'However, the union did frequently threaten to withdraw musicians from the radio networks to punish individual network affiliates who Frank Sinatra V Discwere deemed “unfair” for violating the union's policy on recording network shows for repeat broadcasts.'

'At first, the record companies hoped to call the union's bluff by releasing new recordings from their unissued stockpiles, but the strike lasted much longer than anticipated and eventually the supply of unissued recordings was exhausted. The companies also reissued long deleted recordings from their back catalogs, including some from as far back as the mid-1920s (the dawn of the electrical recording era).

One reissue that was especially successful was Columbia’s release of Harry James’ "All or Nothing at All", recorded in August 1939 and released before James' new vocalist, Frank Sinatra, had made a name for himself. The original release carried the usual credit, "Vocal Refrain by Frank Sinatra" in small type. It sold around five thousand copies. When the record was reissued in 1943 with Sinatra given top billing, and "Acc. Harry James and his Orchestra" in small type below, the record was on the best–selling list for 18 weeks and reached number 2 on June 2, 1943.' (Wikipedia).

As the strike extended into 1943, record companies bypassed the striking musicians by recording their popular vocalists singing with vocal groups filling the backup role normally filled by orchestras.

During this hiatus, Duke Ellington was playing at the Casa Manana in Los Angeles and had a nightly broadcast. Due to the ASCAP strike he could not air his compositions, so he turned to Billy Strayhorn and his son, Mercer, neither of whom belonged to ASCAP. This opened the door for Billy Strayhorn to introduce songs like Take The A Train and Chelsea Bridge while Mercer Ellington contributed Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, Blue Serge and Moon Mist.

'In the early 1960's the Goodyear Tire Company commisioned 5 short jazz films. The programs were originally filmed in 35 mm negative. The sound was recorded in professional stereo. Presenting the band in full vigor. Over the years, the prints faded to pink, because of an unstable color print stock. What was once an extremely professional, good looking endeavour, now looked like the most out of date historic relic. In the late 80s Storyville Films polished and remastered the original source material and sync'ed music to the images. Finally these films were back to their intended quality and now stand as some of the most technically advanced of jazz films of the early 60s. This clip was recorded in NYC, January 9, 1962'. (ibid).



The personnel are: Ray Nance, Shorty Baker, Cat Anderson, Bill Berry, Ed Mullens (trumpet); Lawrence Brown, Leon Cox, Chuck Conners (trombone); Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges (alto-saxophone); Paul Gonsalves (tenor saxophone); Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet and tenor-saxophone); Harry Carney (baritone saxophone); Duke Ellington (piano); Aaron Bell (bass); Sam Woodyard (drums).

In Duke Ellington: A Listener’s Guide, Eddie Lambert says that “long versions (of jazz compositions) featuring extended solos became popular as a result of the success of the tenor extravaganzas by such musicians as Illinois Jacquet and Flip Philips with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic.” The Ellington band would play long versions of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” often featuring a Johnny Hodges solo at least once, and even twice, nightly until the 1970’s.


We might have the benefit of video examples, but it is worth listening to this version from the '100 Jazz Masterpieces' series




We are still considering Johnny Mercer's tune and lyrics, and it seems they actually go with a tune called The G.I. Jive. Here is Louis Jordan and his band playing the number with suitable pictures.



After you wash and dress
More or less
You go get your breakfast in a beautiful little caf? they call "The Mess"
Jack, when you convalesce
Outta your seat
Into the street
Make with the feet

V Disc playing

Johnny Mercer's lyrics clearly came out during World War II and were written in wartime when those V-discs were being issued to the armed forces.

V-discs (the V was for 'Victory') were aimed at boosting morale in the United States forces. The US government liaised with various private record companies to produce a series of recordings - (Army V-discs were issued in series A-Z, AA-ZZ and AAA-FFF; Navy V-discs were issued in series A-N). They were 12", vinyl 78 rpm records where, when 136 grooves per inch were cut, they could hold up to six and a half minutes of music. Not all releases were pressed on vinyl, some were still the shellac compound used for standard 78 RPM records of the day.

It is worth remembering that although some 78 rpm records were eventually issued on vinyl, it was not until after World War II that 33 rpm and 45 rpm records were issued and the  33 1⁄3 rpm LP (for "long-play") format was developed by Columbia Records and marketed in June 1948.



If you're a P-V-T, your duty
Is to salute to L-I-E-you-T
But if you brush the L-I-E-you-T
The M-P makes you K-P on the Q-T

This is the G. I. Jive
Man alive
They give you a private tank that features a little device called "fluid drive"
Jack, after you revive
Chuck all your junk
Back in the trunk
Fall on your bunk

Wikipedia tells us: 'Many V-Discs contained spoken-word introductions by bandleaders and artists, wishing good luck and prayers for the soldiers overseas, and their hopes for a swift and safe return. Glenn Miller, for instance, introduced V-Disc 65A, issued in December, 1943, with the following message: "This is Captain Glenn Miller speaking for the Army Air Force's Training Command Orchestra and we hope that you soldiers of the Allied forces enjoy these V-Discs that we're making just for you." V-Discs also featured one-of-a-kind performances, as artists who were not shackled by restrictive record company contracts could now perform special versions of the 1940s' most popular hits.'


Here is Art Tatum introducing his performance of Sweet Lorraine on V-Disc.





Or without an introduction, Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong and the V-Disc All Stars playing Jack-Armstrong Blues with Billy Butterfield, Bobby Hackett, Lou McGarity, Ernie Caceres, Nick Caiazza, Johnny Guarnieri, Herb Ellis, Al Hall and Cozy Cole.




'During the United States occupation of Japan, the V-Disc collection in the Service Club at the NYK (Nihon Yusen-Kaisha) office building-barracks had several discs by various artists that carried the subtitle "Fluffs at a Record Session." All of these contained tunes played in full by the regular, famous American V-Disc artists. The fluffs records were unusual in that each contained some egregious error—usually in the lyrics—by the performer. Most of those were humorous and seemed to be intentional as is not unusual in recording sessions. The soldiers used to seek out the fluffs and play those first.' (ibid).

Here is a short film of the Andrews Sisters recording a V-Disc of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.




This is the G. I. Jive
Man alive
They give you a private tank that features a little device called "fluid drive"
Jack, if you still survive
Chuck all your junk
Back in the trunk
Fall on your bunk


And so to Ted Persons's lyrics. Persons was the pen name of Simon Schwartz. In addition to writing the lyrics for Things Ain’t What They Used to Be he also wrote the words to the Ray Nance tune Otto Make That Riff Staccato. I cannot find out much about Ted / Simon except in the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive we read that he was: 'A long-time member of the Socialist Labor Party, Schwartz broke with the Party in the 1960s along with Louis Lazarus and Murray Block among others. He was especially interested in Chile and Allende. His research on this topic led him into undertaking the writing of a history from a Marxist perspective. In his personal life, Schwartz was a witty, multi-faceted man who along with other activities, wrote lyrics under the name Ted Persons and produced a TV show in the early 1950s, the AdLibbers.'


The rhythm for Things Ain't What They Used To Be is the same as G.I. Jive. but the lyrics are quite different. Here is Ella singing the song.





Got so weary of bein' nothin',
Felt so dreary just doin' nothin'
Didn't care ever gettin' nothin', felt so low
Now my eyes on the far horizon can see a glow
Announcin' things ain't what they used to be.

No use bein' a doubtin' Thomas,
No ignorin' that rosy promise;
Now I know there's a happy story yet to come.
It's the dawn of a day of glory: millennium
I tell you things ain't what they used to be.




Here is a great video of comedian Buster Keaton dancing to Ellington's Things Ain't What They Used To Be. The person who put it together says: 'This is a video I created for Daniela Vila using the song "Things Ain't What They Use To Be" by Duke Ellington (I hope you like it) The clips I used are from some of Buster Keaton's best and funniest movies, which I do not own, nor the song.'





Take time out to watch this superb, slow, moody video of pianist Keith Jarrett playing 'Things ...' recorded in Japan in 1987.




... and talking of pianists, we don't hear enough of Marian McPartland but here she is playing 'Things ...' in a video recorded as part of the Jazz 625 series in 1964 (click here). It is suggested that Alan Ganley is the drummer, but the bass player is not named.




As Thing's was initially a feature for Johnny Hodges, we ought to end up with Johnny and his Orchestra playing the tune. Click here to listen to that wonderful saxophone playing Things Ain't What They Used To Be from the album Rejoice (you can download the album if you click here - I think the cornet player is Rex Stewart).





Johnny Hodges


Johnny Hodges


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© Sandy Brown Jazz