Music Men

Ask Vance



Dear Vance: At a local yard sale, I picked up a scratched 78 rpm record for a group called the Original Memphis Five. What do you know about this Memphis band? — K.F., memphis.

Dear K.F.: Oh, the memories this brings back, buried in my subconscious after years of psychotherapy and electro-shock treatments. The Original Memphis Five were the Lauderdale family's favorite performers. Many nights, locked away in my little bedroom in the mansion tower, I would place one of their tunes on my old gramophone and skip around the room, entranced by their melodies.

In fact, for a music recital held when I was 15, I chose one of their most popular songs — "Suez," described as "the Oriental fox-trot romance" — and sang it to the half-dozen guests crammed into the Lauderdale ballroom. To this day, I can remember the soaring refrain ("Suez, wondrous Suez, where I was captured with your love sigh / All day, and through the night, to be with you I cry"). And when I hit that final word "cry" in my soaring falsetto, well, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Whether from the beauty of my voice, or my innovative harmonica solo that followed, it's hard to say. I can still see my Aunt Henrietta covering her ears with her blue-veined hands, my performance obviously so beautiful she simply couldn't stand it. Ah, good times!

It wasn't until years later that I learned that the only thing accurate about the name of the Original Memphis Five was the "five" part. First of all, their music wasn't always original. "Suez" was produced by other songwriters, for instance, as were most of their hit songs. And — here's the odd thing — not a single one of their members hailed from Memphis. How they came up with the name of their group, I have no idea.

This much I do know: The Original Memphis Five was a jazz quintet formed in New Orleans around 1917 by trumpet player Phil Napoleon and pianist Frank Signorelli. I guess those two fellows are depicted on the cover of the old sheet music (left), but it doesn't say. Other members included Jimmy Lytell, Charlie Parnelli, and Jack Roth; old photos show the group with a clarinet, trombone, and drums, but I couldn't tell you who played what. It doesn't matter, really. Not to me, anyway.

The Five were incredibly popular through the 1920s and 1930s, cranking out dozens of hit records and selling thousands of pages of sheet music. I can still hum many of their songs, which included such wonderfully titled classics as "Aggravatin' Papa," "Bees Knees," "Don't Pan Me When I'm Gone," "Got To Cool My Doggies Now," "If Your Man Is Like My Man, I Sympathize With You," "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate," "My Honey's Loving Arms," "That Teasin' Squeezin' Man of Mine," and — my personal favorite — "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time!"

I don't know what happened to all the musicians over the years. The only one who really became famous was Phil Napoleon, who later played with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and opened his own nightclub, Napoleon's Retreat, in Miami. According to redhotjazz.com, he died there in 1990.

Chew on This

Dear Vance: When I was a kid, I remember eating Sky Rocket bubblegum that was supposedly made in Memphis. True? — B.G., Memphis.

Dear B.G.: How could I possibly know if you are telling the truth about chewing bubblegum when you were a kid? Did we know each other? Did you come to my recitals?

Or are you instead asking about Sky Rocket bubblegum? Oh. Well, I can answer that question.

Sky Rocket was indeed manufactured in Memphis, by a firm called the Saymore Company. A fellow named Sam Myar started this little business in 1959, and though I can't say for certain, I believe he realized that his name sounded much like "say more" which (he must have reasoned) made a great name for a candy and gum company. So he purchased a building at 985 Kansas and began to crank out boxloads of Sky Rocket bubblegum in four somewhat unusual flavors: fruit, wintergreen, banana, and cinnamon. Saymore also manufactured hollow-center gumballs in what they called "straight" flavors: orange, grape, and red hot. I know this because I chanced upon an old postcard (above), which told me all this. The postcard cleverly includes a cup and plate, as if you could make a meal out of all this stuff.

All that gum must have kept local dentists busy. It didn't stay in business long at all. By 1965, Sam Myar was no longer listed in the old city directories. Shortly after that, I understand the facility was acquired by the DonRuss Company (the name forged from the two founders, Donald and Russel Wiener), which became one of this country's largest suppliers of those flat sheets of bubble gum that used to come with baseball cards. I don't know what their slogan was, but something tells me it didn't have quite the ring to it as "Say More!"

Doctor Domain

Dear Vance: There's an odd-looking house at the corner of Tutwiler and McLean. Somebody told me the back portion once housed a barbershop. Are they right? — J.T., Memphis.

Dear J.T.: Well, they would be right if this were the 1700s, when barbers and surgeons were often one and the same. But no barbershop ever occupied that corner. Instead, over the years it was first a doctor's office, and then a dentist's office.

A few details: The house was built in 1922. I can't tell you the original owner, but in 1927 the city directories show it occupied by Dr. Charles Polk, who was director of children's hygiene for the Shelby County Board of Health. In 1930, he enlarged his home, adding an office at the back. His residential address was 1852 Tutwiler, but the address of his doctor's office was 650 North McLean, which must have been very confusing for the postman.

Polk treated patients there until 1938, when the property was purchased by a dentist, Gordon B. Ramsey, who lived there with his wife, Martha. Sometime around the late 1960s, another dentist — William Pearson — took over the place. That addition on the back of the house must be larger than it looks, because in later years he not only took in a partner, Allen Johnson, but also began selling Shaklee health-food products out of the house. As recently as 10 years ago, yet another dentist, Thomas Nash, called 650 North McLean home. At least I think he was a dentist; the phone books described his occupation in this cryptic, abbreviated way: "ofcs clns of dntst." I don't know what to make of that. It doesn't matter, though.

The house is now a private residence, so if you've got a toothache — from jawing all that Sky Rocket bubblegum — you'll have to get that cavity filled somewhere else. 

Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at askvance@memphismagazine.com

Add your comment: