Billy Jones and Ernest Hare were established solo artists by the time they first came together in 1921. Both of them had operatic experience that they were happy to use to comical, satirical ends. Jones was a Tenor, while Hare was a baritone.
Their radio debut was October 18, 1921, on Newark’s WJZ. As was the custom in those days, their radio show was primarily sponsored by a single business; in this case, it was the chain of Happiness Candy Stores. Hence the name that would become the duo’s moniker: The Happiness Boys.
And happiness was the name of the game. Lighthearted novelty songs would be performed with snappy patter in between. A number of the songs performed on the show would be recorded for a variety of record labels. The record I found in the Archive a while back was Okeh’s “You Tell Her—I Stutter.”
Now, as we’ll see later on in the post, and as you are probably already aware, novelty songs of the 1920’s were not known for their political correctness. Ethnicities of all stripes were fair game, as were various disabilities. To wit:
I’ve stuttered ever since I had learned to talk, so I do feel some ambivalence towards this otherwise fun tune. The “stuttering” that happens during the song proper is musically sound—it’s rhythmic, and fits within the song. So that doesn’t bother me so much. The lyrics talk about showering folks with spit when the protagonist speaks (bad) but his friend is willing to help him out (good). His friend’s willingness to help might not seem like much, but some folks still believed that stuttering was a sign of dealings with the devil back then. As recently as twenty years ago, an older man reacted to my less than fluent request for directions by saying that he didn’t want to talk to me because my stutter was a sign of my inherent dishonesty. So Ernest helping a pal “in Dutch” (How do the Dutch feel about that expression? Is it’s insult offset by “Dutch courage?”) means something.
But then we get to the spoken bit of the song, about two thirds of the way through. Ernest asks his pal to recount the time he asked for his gal’s address, and the stuttering ceases to be musical. It’s accurate, or at least close enough to take this listener out of the joking spirit of the song. It’s a good reminder—a joke at someone else’s expense is easy enough to laugh off, but when the joke is on you, it’s a little harder to be so cavalier.
Still, there is fun to be had with The Happiness Boys. “Old King Tut” is so blithely inaccurate that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking it seriously enough to be offended. And for we all know, this inspired Steve Martin’s song 45 years later.
Speaking of history, “Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me” is fine example of a novelty song riffing on current events. Industrialist Henry Ford was America’s most famous anti-semite in the twenties, penning a number of virulent editorials for his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. In 1929, Ford publicly (though not privately) renounced his hateful ways, and this song is the result. Exchanges like. “Are you happy that he changed his point of view?/Yes! I like even Hitler too!” are galling today, until one remembers that in 1929, no one knew just how horrifying Hitler would become. Two gentiles singing in stereotypically Jewish voices is still pretty offensive, though, even if it’s being done to take an anti-semite to task.
On lighter note, 1928’s “Twisting the Dials” is an impressive look at the experience of turning the radio dial and hoping to find something good. Keep in mind that this was done years before multi-tracking—this was recorded with one microphone, some sound effects, two vocalists, and some records that were “sampled” in real time. Very clever stuff.
Billy and Ernie’s popularity had waned by the 1930’s. They had lost their sponsorship and by 1934 they were the Tasty Loafers, now sponsored by the Taystee Bread company. They were still in good voice though, as this recording of “Hat’s On the Side of My Head” shows. Followed directly by guest star Connie Gates doing “Ho-Hum.”
Ernie Hare died in 1939. Curiously, his 16 year-old daughter Marilyn took his place, allowing the duo to continue as “Jones and Hare.” Jones died the following year.