Music from the Magic Box
By Alice Randall
Dance Off, 2015, a mixed-media collage by Derrick Adams © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York City
Motown Saturday nights in the mid-Sixties my grandmother, a Black woman born near Marion Junction, Alabama, would often put on a party dress to “watch Lawrence Welk and babysit Bootsie.” I, Bootsie, wore footie pajamas as we peered at and listened to an orchestra play what its bandleader called “champagne music.”
I hated watching Lawrence Welk almost as much as I loved my grandmother.
To my Black Detroit kindergarten ears and eyes everything about The Lawrence Welk Show seemed slow and boring—except the bubbles that opened the black-and-white episodes and sometimes floated through the air during a dance number.
My grandmother’s reaction to the show fascinated. Dear would smell a different kind of sweet on Lawrence Welk nights. Not her everyday baby powder sweet, not the loud flowery perfume she wore to church, but a quieter Saturday-night-watching-Lawrence-Welk sweet and peppery.
You had to get up close to catch a whiff of her Saturday night perfume. I would jump in her arms and put my nose in her neck as soon as she walked through the front door of my parents’ home. After receiving the first of my many hugs of the evening, my father’s mother would stride straight to the ornate television console and cut on ABC.
The Lawrence Welk Show debuted on national television in 1955, and new episodes anchored Saturday night on ABC until 1971. Lately, I’ve been trying to tease out why a show starring an orchestra leader born in North Dakota in 1903 meant so much to my grandmother who was born in Alabama in 1898.
Pondering Dear’s perspective, I’ve come to love “Larry” and his thick German–accented “wunnerful, wunnerful.”
Georgia Minnie Litsey Randall was born in a place, Dallas County, Alabama, and at a time, the late nineteenth century, where the expectation was Black people were servants and white people were served; where the norm was Black people entertained and white people were entertained; and where it was widely understood by the powers that ran Alabama out of the state capitol in Montgomery that all white performance was better than any Black performance.
Watching Lawrence Welk, we, Dear and Bootsie, disrupted all of that. A white man and his orchestra were playing “champagne music,” tranquilizing tunes that aspired to be peppy, for us. They were serving us. And she was enjoying it.
Only a person who had acquired a degree of safety, a degree of ease, a degree of “wunnerful, wunnerful”—something nobody Black in Alabama had ever achieved in the state at the time my grandmother lived there—could enjoy Welk’s music. Sitting in a spacious and chic Black Detroit home owned by one of her children, taking care of a Black granddaughter whom she believed was every kind of safe, Dear was one such woman.
Sometimes she would bring me a bottle of bubbles and I would blow bubbles throughout the broadcast. Often we would drink Vernors ginger ale out of champagne glasses and nibble on peanuts as we listened and watched.
Ease was one part of the pleasure and disruption; a sense of pride in Black artistry was another.
Even as a five-year-old girl I knew I saw better dancing at my dancing school on a Saturday morning than I saw any Saturday night on Lawrence Welk. And every time the orchestra played, even when I was blowing bubbles, Dear talked about how much she liked Welk’s orchestra and about the better orchestras she loved: Count Basie’s, Duke Ellington’s, and the Mills Brothers.
My grandmother passed her profound appreciation for the Mills Brothers down to me. I devote a chapter of Black Bottom Saints to Skipper Mills, founder and father of the quartet. They were not an orchestra in the usual sense of the word, but starting in about 1928, they established their early reputation with a gimmick: they could imitate “a whole orchestra” using only their voices and a single guitar.
The Mills Brothers’ aesthetic, as I have come to understand from my grandmother’s appreciation, was a stealthy country club cool that evaded much musical redlining.
They evaded being confined to live performance. They evaded being confined to raw and rural sounds. They evaded being confined to work and prison rhythms. They evaded intensity. With sound, they claimed a radical Black right to leisure, to calm, to gentle and pretty moments that gave voice to Black dignity, Black pride, and Black genius. Singing disciplined and complex four-part-brother-harmonies, they performed their individual and collective humanity with refinement and nuance.
“We are each different and we are for each other” was the political message my grandmother conveyed to me that she understood to be embedded in their performances. She taught that same lesson in her home. Diverse but unified is what I was coached to hear in every bar of the Mills Brothers’ whole orchestra.
On February 22, 1964, the Mills Brothers were on The Lawrence Welk Show. They sang their just released single, “It Hurts Me More than It Hurts You,” and then they delivered their biggest hit, “Paper Doll.” You can watch the performance on YouTube.
Welk pays the group great deference. He introduces them as “special guests” who “have entertained the nation, and for that matter the world, for many, many years.” He refers to the group as the “very famous” Mills Brothers and invites his audience not to listen to them, but to meet them.
Dear, who had Black and white relatives (legitimate and illegitimate kin, all acknowledged) living in Selma, understood from personal experience that this episode of Lawrence Welk’s show would rattle and enrage much of white Selma and gratify Black Selma. And the Mills Brothers, who often stated, “Jim Crow is the fifth Mills Brother; he travels with us everywhere we go,” would have been able to list hundreds of communities that would hear the explosion contained in their genial performance of accepting Welk’s deference while loudly and proudly calling the bandleader by his first name.
For many Southerners, this performance of public respect for a Black family by a white man was a first-time occurrence inside their homes. In Black homes Welk’s performance of respect for the Mills Brothers was a promise of better days to come; in white homes it was proof that the world as they knew it was ending. Both sides were reading the Welk show right. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 would pass July 2, 1964. The Mills Brothers’ dulcet performance was a reckoning bell.
After the brothers complete their first number, Welk returns to the stage, declaring, “Aren’t they great?” He positions himself as an old fan and frames the performance the viewers have just seen as something Welk has desired and worked toward for three years. Then he turns the stage over to Harry Mills.
The Mills Brothers are not deferential to Welk. They don’t compliment him. They barely thank him. They don’t promote the single or mention their record label.
They take the time between the songs to tell their own story. In fifty seconds, Harry Mills paints a word portrait of a family of Black working artists, landing most vividly on the death of their eldest brother in 1936; their father joining the group to replace his dead son; and the father’s leaving the group in 1955 to move into a retirement of hunting and fishing. Harry takes obvious pleasure in announcing his father’s leisure, his well-earned rest after a lifetime of work.
Then the brothers launch into “Paper Doll.” No song better exemplified Skipper Mills’s labor. The single—with Skipper Mills singing bass, playing guitar, and doing much of the managing of the group—first entered the Billboard charts for a single week in 1942, appearing solely on a Southern Region chart. In May 1943, it made the national Billboard chart. In early November 1943, “Paper Doll” landed at number one on the national Billboard charts and stayed at number one until late January 1944. The song would spend a total of twelve weeks at number one on the national Billboard chart. On Billboard’s “Harlem Hit Parade,” it would rise to number two for the year. Only fifty singles in the twentieth century sold over ten million copies. “Paper Doll” was one of them.
When the Mills Brothers finish performing “Paper Doll,” Welk shakes hands with each of them, makes a few remarks, then pronounces, “Thank you, Gentlemen.”
For Dear, that was a performance worthy of perfume. And bubbles. The Lady well understood both the power of a transgressive performance and the power of being a transgressive audience. She introduced me to that power with perfume, bubbles, and music from the magic box.
Louis Armstrong on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 © Everett Collection
In the twenty-first century, a new magic box, a laptop armed with a YouTube subscription, allows me to travel back to see and hear again the sights and sounds that made me. I have a favorite trip.
Between June 7, 1969, and March 31, 1971, fifty-eight episodes of The Johnny Cash Show were presented on Saturday nights on ABC. This coincided exactly with a period in early middle school when I spent many weekends in a strange little hamlet on the Chesapeake Bay called Fishing Creek as the guest of an eleven-year-old spitfire who ran around with me in a gang of six girls—two Black, four white—at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.
My friend looked something almost exactly like an eleven-year-old version of Liza Minnelli circa 1969 in The Sterile Cuckoo, which means she had pale skin and a spiky, dark Beatles haircut. Her bedroom in the Fishing Creek farmhouse was in an unfinished attic up a rickety stair. She had relations who lived next door full time on the island, a young husband and wife. The husband was an oysterman.
We adored the oysterman because he would loan two eleven-year-old girls a small boat we could use to explore the bay and nearby sandbars and islands alone. And he was willing on occasion to zip us out to the barren islands and leave us for hours to play in the sand between the giant bleached white driftwood sculptures and would reliably come to pick us back up.
The oysterman adored Johnny Cash. As I remember Saturday nights on Fishing Creek, he drank beer, we drank Coke, and Johnny and his guests sang. The Johnny Cash Show was not just the blackest thing on Fishing Creek Island, it was the blackest art thing in my whole Washington world.
Gathering around the television to watch and critique music was very much a black thing in the Detroit of my childhood. No, everyone didn’t watch Lawrence Welk with their grandmother like I did, but all the cool cats I knew did watch the “Sullivan show” every Sunday God sent, to see if any “of us” were on it and dissect the quality of all the acts. And people in my family were talking about certain episodes of The Nat King Cole show for years after it was off the air—and it was barely on the air for a year.
After I met Johnny Cash on Fishing Creek Island, I did not let him go. Wherever I was, I tried to catch the show. I loved it for reminding me of Dear and Detroit. And I loved Johnny Cash for Johnny Cash.
Johnny had O. C. Smith, Charley Pride, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Edwin Hawkins, and the Staple Singers on the show. On his episode, Louis walks on set swinging a white cowboy hat while O. C. sings in front of a painting of a modest country cabin, or perhaps it is a barn, accompanied by a Black child about my age. There’s a clip of that August 16, 1969, episode on YouTube, and the O. C. Smith and child plus Johnny Cash version of “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” is worth a listen half a century later. Cash devoted whole episodes to songwriters and often talked about songwriting. All this was an auspicious introduction to Nashville for me. Watching Johnny Cash on Fishing Creek was a first step on my journey to becoming a country songwriter.
I knew O. C. Smith, Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Edwin Hawkins, and the Staple Singers from my earlier childhood listening to Motown. Charley Pride was new to me. And so were some of the women songwriters and singers on the show—Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Jeannie C. Riley. Lulu I had adored from To Sir, with Love, a film I had seen in Detroit before moving to Washington in January of 1968. Cass Elliot, Dusty Springfield, Judy Collins, and Loretta Lynn made the strongest positive impression on me. The Carter Family, Linda Ronstadt, Brenda Lee, Patti Page, Lynn Anderson, and Tammy Wynette, who I would one day quote leaving my first husband, were far less interesting to me back then. The men who interested me most? Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson reminded me of the male teachers in my hippie school, Georgetown Day School.
The Johnny Cash Show was my soul-country primer. It only failed me once.
All this was an auspicious introduction to Nashville for me. Watching Johnny Cash on Fishing Creek was a first step on my journey to becoming a country songwriter.
Let’s revisit the moment. October 28, 1970. Louis Armstrong is the guest. The two men sit down to play what many people consider to be the first great country song, “Blue Yodel #9.” Armstrong talks about being in Los Angeles and getting a phone call from Jimmie Rodgers inviting him to play on a session.
“I’ve been knowing Jimmie for a long time and following up his music too and I woke up one morning and Jimmie said, ‘Man I feel like singing some blues y’know.’ I say, ‘OK, Daddy, you sing some blues and I’m going to blow behind you,’ and that’s the way the record started, y’know.”
The recording session occurred July 16, 1930. When Cash states, “You played trumpet on a session with the late Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music,” there is gravitas in his tone. It seems Cash intends to set the record straight. Certainly, he gets a new fact on the record: there was a Black male body in the room when the “Blue Yodel” magic happened in 1930. Then they prepare to reprise the 1930 performance with a 1970 performance to underscore, to make visible and audible to Cash’s audience, the reality that there was Black presence as well as influence at the very beginning of recorded country music. Armstrong introduces the reprise with these words, “I will tell you what we’ll do. We will say we give it to them in black and white.” Then they—Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, and Bill Walker—go on to play the classic, which includes the lyrics, “down in Memphis, corner of Beale and Main.”
Cash sings and plays Jimmie Rodgers’s part. Louis plays Louis. Bill Walker plays the piano, plays Lil’s part. Yep, a Black woman is replaced by a white man in a song that refers to laundry markings on a shirt—and if that’s not Black female Memphis signifying, well, God didn’t make little green apples. And O.C. Smith didn’t sing some of his other big hits on The Johnny Cash Show.
Cash and Armstrong do an honorable and powerful job of putting a Black body in the room where the “Blue Yodel” magic happened in 1930. Why then do they choose to erase the presence of the second Black body in the room? Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, played on every bar of the song.
I’ve seen pictures of Lil Hardin Armstrong in Los Angeles with Louis around the time of the Jimmie Rodgers recording session. She’s a stylish beauty, but she was far more than eye candy. She was a classically trained pianist who grew up near Beale Street; who studied music at Fisk; who wrote one of the great jazz standards of all time, “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque”; who had a number one when Ray Charles covered her song “Just for a Thrill” in 1959; and who had a posthumous cut on Ringo Starr’s 1978 album Bad Boy. The cut for which the album is named is Ringo’s remix of Lil’s 1936 single “Brown Gal.” That’s who Armstrong and Cash erase from their early days of country story when they tell it on national television.
Don’t believe Lil was there? There’s proof. The sheet music for the “Blue Yodel #9” session has been located. On it, in Jimmie Rodgers’s own handwriting (authenticated by experts), the acknowledgement that “Louie’s wife Lil” played the piano.
Jimmie Rodgers is often called the father of country music. For the work she did on “Blue Yodel #9,” we need to start thinking about acknowledging Lil as its midwife. I believe Lil may have written the version of “Blue Yodel #9” played on the session. If that is true, she is arguably, instead, a mother of country.
What is for sure: there is a Black presence at the very beginning, in the seminal song—and most people wouldn’t have known it if not for Johnny Cash inviting Louis Armstrong into a conversation intended to correct lapses in the historical record. Johnny Cash used music on the magic box of television to blast light on the Black roots of country way back in 1970.
The year Soul Train came on the air, 1971, is the year The Johnny Cash Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Lawrence Welk Show were canceled by their networks. Born in 1959, I was raised on music from the magic box of television. In the twenty-first century, I revisit my raising on a MacBook Pro tuned to YouTube.
Recently I discovered a clip of LaVern Baker singing “Tweedlee Dee” on The Ed Sullivan Show on November 20, 1955, four years before I was born. Some night soon I’m dressing up, putting on perfume to watch, listen, and wonder. Did Dear see this jewel the first time around?
One magic music box, television, sustained me through a complicated Motown childhood; a different one, the laptop, sustains me through the complications of my Music City mature age.