For as long as there have been records, there have been novelty records.
For the first couple of years of the recording industry, novelty records – featuring impersonations of bird noises, or George W Johnson’s “The Laughing Song”, in which the chorus was made up of nothing George’s strangely addictive laugh – seemed to be all anybody wanted to record.
That, and marching bands.
A couple of decades may have passed, but novelty records were still going strong in the 1920s. And in no other year of the 1920s were they ever quite as strong as they were in 1923.
And no novelty song of 1923 was quite as big as:“Yes! We Have No Bananas.”
The story of a greengrocer whose aversion to disappointing his customers results in him refusing to ever answer in the negative. Much to everyone’s confusion. And amusement.
“Yes! We Have No Bananas” was recorded by a whole bunch of vaudeville entertainers and jazz dance orchestras, with the most popular version being by Billy Jones, a cheerful and chirpy performer even by the perky standards of 1920s vaudeville.
Billy was so incessantly jolly that he collaborated with the equally peppy Ernest Hare. Together they called themselves The Happiness Boys.
This wasn’t just because they sang happy novelty songs, their primary weapon in a two-man campaign to cheer up New Yorkers, who, they had observed, appeared to be way too cynical and jaded.
It was because they had a radio show, sponsored by Happiness Candy.
But “Yes! We Have No Bananas” was Billy’s solo record. It may not sound like a solo record however, since Billy plays multiple characters on it, in a range of “humorous” voices. Billy doesn’t just sing ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas.” he performs:
- A bad impression of the Greek greengrocer himself.
- The role of a customer, unsuccessfully attempting to order a coconut pie. Turns out they have no coconut pie. They do however have coconuts.
- And the role of the greengrocer’s daughter, Mariana. She also doesn’t have a banana. Nor presumedly a coconut pie.
I guess the ability to impersonate so many voices so badly is impressive in a way. *
It appears that “Yes! We Have No Bananas” was a catchphrase before it was a song.
I say “appears,” because there was a lot of debate at the time about who was responsible – i.e., who to blame – for making the infernal thing so popular. The debate became so heated that Time magazine, in one of its earliest editions, contacted the two characters most likely to have been responsible and begged them to sort the origin story out.
Those two characters were Frank Silver, who wrote the song, and Tad Dorgan, who wrote comic strips.
Although ultimately the phrase was coined by neither of them, but by their respective Greek greengrocers, a man who likely never got the credit, or the royalties, he was owed.
Personally, I’m on Team Tad.
Simply because he was the far more interesting character of the two.
A one-handed San Franciscan comic strip writer who specialized in strips about boxing and dogs.
He also possessed an unparalleled ability in inventing new slang terms.
He was the Shakespeare of slang! It was Tad who came up with the idea of calling someone stupid a “dumbbell”, and who coined both “for crying out loud” and “get your goat,” as well as that most quintessential of all 1920s ticks of approval, “it’s the cat’s pyjamas.”
This made him one of the most popular comic strip writers in an age when comics and boxing and slang were all at the centre of popular culture.
But it was Frank who wrote the damned song. And it was Eddie Cantor who “introduced” the song, as part of the Broadway revue, “Make It Snappy.”
For those of you not familiar with the infuriating comic “genius” of Eddie Cantor, at this stage he was about half a decade into his reign as the spokesperson for the Cake-Eating generation.
And for those of you unfamiliar with Cake-Eaters, they were the male version of Flappers, at least until Valentino came along, after which they were referred to as “Sheiks.”
This was no doubt a great relief to the Cake-Eater community, since Cake-Eater may have been the least flattering sub-culture name in pop history. Or at least would have been if Cake-Eaters weren’t also referred to as Dollar Johns, 2-Cent Wills, Rug Hoppers and Cork Smellers.
Eddie Cantor was hyper-active, and hyper-into beautiful girls. His song titles were also ludicrously long and made longer by his liberal use of parenthesis. Eddie Cantor’s hits around this time included such classics as:
- “Give Me The Sultan’s Harem (Won’t You Give That Harem To Me)”
- “When They Are Old Enough To Know Better (It’s Better To Leave Them Alone),”
- “I Love Her-She Loves Me (I’m Her He-She’s My She)”
- and “Oh! Gee, Oh! Gosh, Oh! Golly, I’m In Love.”
And this one – featured in one of the earliest music videos – “The Dumber They Come, the Better I Like ‘Em (Because The Dumb Ones Know How To Make Love!)” in which Eddie might actually sing “dumbbell.”Or although, it’s equally likely he’s singing “dumb girl.”
He also has a bit of a comic monologue at the beginning, which should give you an idea of the um, sophistication?… that doesn’t quite feel like the right word… of vaudeville comedy in 1923:
So I mentioned that comic strips played a central role in 1920s popular culture.
And just to demonstrate the extent to which this is true, our friends Billy and Ernest – aka The Happiness Boys – also had a hit with “Barney Google” aka “Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)”, based on a popular newspaper comic strip about a tiny little hard-luck character, Barney Google:
The owner of the oddest looking excuse for a horse – called Spark Plug – that you have ever seen. Spark Plug looked so pitiful that everybody instantly fell in love with him. “Barney Google” became such a phenomena that when Barney ran Spark Plug in a horse race – the Abadaba Handicap – the entire country followed the race – which I feel I need to emphasize was a completely fictional race, in a comic strip – as though it was the Kentucky Derby.
I now present to you: the magical mishap that resulted in our hero Barney Google meeting our other hero, Spark Plug The Horse:
A novelty-song tie-in was virtually inevitable.
And Billy Rose was the just the guy to write the thing!
** And there was more! You could go to see a Barney Google and Spark Plug stage show, featuring the entire cast singing “Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)” at the end of it. Also, naturally, toys.
“Barney Google (With The Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)” captures some of the spectacular nonsense of what made Barney and Spark Plug so popular. A lot of it though is just stock hyperbole that has nothing to do with Barney himself and just seems to be there to tell everyone how out of control the whole Barney Google phenomenon was becoming:
- “Who’s the most important man this country ever knew?”
- “Who’s the greatest lover that this country ever knew?”
- “Who’s the man that Valentino takes his hat off to?” That sort of thing.
None of this however has anything on “The Okeh Laughing Record:”
Probably the weirdest novelty record of the decade.
It doesn’t even pretend to be a proper song. It barely pretends to be proper music. There is a cornet player on there, trying to play a tune, but he is constantly being distracted by a woman – opera singer Lucie Bernardo, on what was certainly her biggest selling record – laughing. Then a man begins to laugh as well. Before long, both the man and the woman are contagiously laughing at each other, creating a hilarious circle of chuckles. At one point they even snort.
Naturally there were sequels. “The Okeh Laughing Dance Record” – presumedly set to a dance orchestra instead of just a long-suffering cornet player, but I can’t find a version – and “The Okeh Crying Record”, in which multiple… um, vocalists… cry – and possibly cry so much that they laugh – along to a solitary struggling violinist.
The record is so mysterious that the only information Okeh printed on the label was that it was “recorded in Europe.” It may actually be better than the laughing record, but I guess it depends on your mood.
But back to “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which – as I mentioned before – had been made famous on Broadway by Eddie Cantor.
Eddie may not have had a hit version of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” itself, but he did record an answer record, which was almost as big: “I’ve Got The Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues”, all about a guy who is sick of hearing ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’” everywhere he goes.
He wishes he could go, to a cabaret or show, and not have to hear somebody singing that doggone song!
He wishes he could break up a million pian-as! In the middle of the song he comes across a group singing it on a street corner and the music stops so Eddie can threaten to call the cops.
All of this Eddie performs AS IF IT WASN’T ALL HIS FAULT FOR SINGING THE DAMN SONG TO BEGIN WITH!!!
I guess this was Eddie’s attempt at redemption.
“I’ve Got The Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues” was big, but it wasn’t so big that it would inspire “I’ve Got The “I’ve Got The Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues” Blues.”
And for that we can all be grateful.
*I’m about 90% sure this is all Billy, since I can’t find any reference to any other vocalists being on the session. And because Mariana’s voice is so terribly done.
**Billy wrote quite a few songs actually. He’s the one to blame for “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)”
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