78: “Arkansas Blues” b/w “The Wang Wang Blues” by The Goofus Five. Okeh 40817. Recorded in New York City, April 14, 1927.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

The California Ramblers were a successful dance band in the mid-1920’s. Managed by Columbia Records promoter Ed Kirkeby, the band was actually based in New York City. They adopted the California association (the band was sometimes known as The Golden Gate Orchestra) to appear exotic and fresh to East Coast audiences. A good example of their sound can be found here, in the jaunty, melodic little number called “Too Many Kisses In the Summer.”

Fun stuff. But the band wanted to also play jazz music, which, at the time, meant cutting down from an orchestra to a smaller combo. This group would need a new name. They were called The Little Ramblers when they recorded for Columbia. Kirkeby was smart enough to see that the same band could record under different names to get contracts with different record companies. When he signed them to Okeh Records, The Goofus Five were born. Why Goofus? Were they endearingly buffoonish? Not at all—a Goofus was a saxophone-shaped instrument that produced a sound like a harmonica.

A Goofus.

A Goofus.

Adrian Rollini played the goofus when he wasn’t playing the bass saxophone, a notoriously difficult instrument to master.—most jazz combos provided the low end with double bass or tuba. You can hear the goofus around the 1:48 mark in this recording of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” Note how Irving Brodsky takes over on the low notes when Rollini switches over to the goofus—there were no overdubs in 1925. Okeh wasn’t even recording electronically at that point.

1927’s “Arkansas Blues” is a good example of the marked improvement in fidelity provided by electrical recording. It was still just one carefully placed microphone, but the difference is profound. The bass saxophone at 2:18 has a depth that acoustic recording just couldn’t provide.

The B side is “Wang Wang Blues.” One might guess that a song with that title has something to do with an obsolete, anatomically-correct home computer. One would be wrong, though. According to the sheet music, the wang wang blues is just a particularly bad version of the blues that one feels when his baby leaves him. It was a more innocent time then.

“Lazy Weather” wonderfully conveys the feeling of a hot summer’s day. The kind of day when you just want to sit on the porch, sip iced tea and play your goofus. Interesting how the drums make notable appearances here and there—just long enough to convey a cartoon mule kind of gait—and then fade back into the background.

Beth Challis lends the boys some vocal assistance in “I Left My Sugar Standing In the Rain,” to delightful effect.

In 1928, Rossini and three other key members of the group defected to Fred Elizalde’s band in London. The Goofus Five were thus no more, and the California Ramblers were reduced to being a less exciting orchestra than they had been before. By the time they had returned to the States, the four musicians found a country reeling from the stock market crash and a public less inclined to spend its money on records or concerts. Adrian Rollini would continue to work well into the 1930’s, though, recording with Bunny Berrigan and Benny Goodman. The goofus, alas, never quite caught on, and was relegated to the “Whatever happened to…?” section of musical instrument history.

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