by Sally-Ann Worsfold
(from the liner notes of The Quintessential Eddie Lang 1925 1932 on Timeless Records)
The guitar has become so firmly identified with every area of 20th century popular music blues, jazz, country,
rock that many of its leading exponents, such as B.B. King, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul and Jimi Hendrix,
are household names, familiar beyond the confines of their respective spheres.
Yet it is highly unlikely that the instrument would have evolved in the way it did without two major factors, both
of which occurred in the mid 1920s: the introduction of the electrical recording process and the arrival in New
York of the Philadelphia born guitarist, Eddie Lang. His trail blazing achievements were made possible by this
technological breakthrough. Until that time the banjo was the emblem of popular music, principally because out
of all musical instruments, its percussive twang was best equipped to cut through the murkiness of the acoustic
horn recording process. Indeed, the most popular early recordings were banjo solos, usually transcribed from
piano rags, and often interpreted by such virtuosi as Fred Van Eps and Harry Reser.
Before the introduction of microphone recording, the guitar was seldom heard outside the concert hall, or in
less formal folk circles, such as flamenco or gipsy. As early as 1922, just prior to the new recording process,
when the singer Nick Lucas, The Singing Troubadour, began his studio career (which lasted over four
decades) he accompanied himself on guitar, although his style was rooted in the ragtime tradition of the
banjoists. Between them, the new technology and Eddie Lang created an entirely fresh role for the guitar, and
in the process helped change the sound of popular music.
Born in 1902 and baptized Salvatore Massaro, he took his adopted name from a childhood basketball
playing hero - the son of an Italian immigrant fretted instrument maker, Eddie Lang was involved in music
making all his tragically brief life, long before he turned professional, aged 16 in 1918, and right up to his death
in March 1933, aged 30, which resulted from complications following a tonsilectomy.
In a relatively short timespan, Eddie Lang accomplished more than most could hope to do given several
lifetimes. This especially applied to his recording career which spanned almost a decade, between 1924 and
1933. The guitarist's output was not merely prolific; its volume was matched by the consistency and scope of
his work. Therefore, this compilation is not intended to be a "best of" type package, a description which could
fit almost everything from the Lang canon. Instead, it is a representative cross section of his artistry in a
diversity of settings. Along the way, there are some familiar performances, many of them milestones in jazz and
popular music, capturing Lang in company of such distinguished names as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke,
Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Lonnie Johnson, King Oliver, Bessie Smith and Jack Teagarden, as well as
leading his own studio groups. The guitarist may be heard too enriching some recordings from such more or
less forgotten names as those of bandleaders Roger Wolfe Kahn and Fred Rich, and the singers Noel Taylor
and Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, in some extremely rare items. Besides some solos and duets, as a bonus,
included are some rare alternative 'takes' of otherwise well known recordings, Wild Cat and Doin' Things,
which feature Eddie Lang alongside his lifelong friend and musical associate, the violinist Joe Venuti.
Eddie Lang joined the Mound City Blue Blowers shortly after his arrival in New York in 1924, and made his
recording debut with that group in the same year, at the tail end of the acoustic era. The opening item Best
Black, came from a January 1925 date, shortly after the band returned from a successful trip to London. Here
Lang plays a Gibson L4 guitar which he soon would trade for the richer sound of a custom made L5, with the
introduction of the microphone. Despite the primitive acoustic, it is evident that Eddie Lang already was an
assured musician, with a feeling for the blues and a keen ear for harmonic possibilities. His presence added
sophistication to what otherwise was a novelty act, led by William 'Red' McKenzie, comb and paper artiste,
later would be balladeer and hustler for all things jazz. (This item was issued, incidentally, not on the Mound City Blue Blower's usual Brunswick label, but its Vocalion subsidiary as by McKenzie's Candy Kids.) Symbolic too that for the
above date, regular banjoist Jack Bland should have been replaced by the aforementioned Harry Reser, as
though the baton were being passed from a virtuoso of the acoustic horn era to a younger one whose potential
would be fully realised with the imminent dawning of the new technology.
The new era demanded fresh skills, especially in the recording studio where it allowed greater intimacy
between performer and listener than the old acoustic method could convey. Partly in response to the different
approach, and also because elements of jazz, in itself a relatively new idiom, had begun to influence songwriters
and arrangers, popular music began to acquire greater sophistication. Jazz itself also was in transition from
being chiefly an ensemble music to a soloist's medium. Such changes resulted chiefly from the innovations of
one musician, Louis Armstrong. An exciting and fruitful period, then, with challenges for which Eddie Lang was
equipped on all levels. Not only an undoubted virtuoso on an instrument new to the popular music and jazz
fields, his instinctive ear for melodic invention and harmonic exploration was allied to an innate rhythmic sense.
In addition, his was the rare ability to sound totally authoritative and at home in any musical setting. Not
surprisingly, his wide ranging gifts ensured that he was constantly in demand as one of the busiest session
musicians of his own, or any other, era. In and out of the studio, he worked alongside his peers, the cream of
the New York dance orchestra and jazz fields, in a demanding schedule of "live" appearances, pit orchestra
work, broadcasts, and recordings.
His partnership with the violinist Joe Venuti, one of the most fruitful in all jazz, was the highspot of numerous
recordings. Such vehicles as Wild Cat (yet another relative of Tiger Rag) and Doin' Things, clearly were
elaborations and extensions of the kind of experimental improvisation they first developed as a supplement to
more formal music studies as children in Philadelphia. Officially trio performances, pianist Frank Signorelli
wisely takes a backseat on these 1928 Victor versions of the two themes previously recorded for OKeh the
year before. The duo's inspired spontaneity and almost telepathic rapport also determined the cohesive nature
of the recordings issued under the Joe Venuti Blue Four heading. On such occasions, a pianist and reed player
completed the line-up. The 1930 Put And Take, which includes Itzy Riskin and bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini
(also to be heard on the hot fountain pen, an instrument he invented) is an early and characteristic
demonstration that jazz could be debonair, intimate and witty, without sacrificing any of the essential verve and
The vibrant presence of the Venuti/Lang partnership enhanced many commercial dance band sessions. Among
them, Roger Wolfe Kahn's Just The Same, a perfect example of the way a slick score and a succession of
"hot" solos could revitalize even the corniest theme. The Venuti/Lang feature and the Miff Mole solo are the
highspots. The Fred Rich Orchestra's version of I Got Rhythm was just one of several contemporary covers of
the showstopper from the 1930 Gershwin musical, Girl Crazy, and a theme which soon became a jazz staple.
Launched by a sparkling Venuti/Lang passage, this interpretation also boasts solos for the trombonist Tommy
Dorsey and probably his brother, Jimmy, on alto saxophone. The Jean Goldkette Orchestra's reputation as one
of the more jazz slanted commercial outfits certainly seems vindicated by the presence of such luminaries as the
cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, C melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti and, of course, Eddie Lang,
on the delightfully louche reading of Clementine. Note the smooth propulsion generated by the guitarist in
tandem with Steve Brown, a still undervalued double bass pioneer, in a rhythm section which was streets ahead
of any competition. On this, and the Wolfe Kahn item, Eddie Lang worked alongside a banjoist, which would
remain the norm until the end of the decade, by which time most rhythm sections featured guitar only, thanks to
Lang's pervasive influence.
The guitarist made an integral contribution to many classic jazz recordings. Among them, I'm Coming Virginia,
from May 1927, made with a nucleus from the Goldkette Orchestra under Frankie Trumbauer's name. Here
the guitarist's lines are interwoven throughout like a shimmering thread, while his sublime support enfolds the
radiant Bix centrepiece. Almost two years later, in March 1929, another masterwork, the blues entitled
Knockin' A Jug, featured Lang's winsome, understated solo, a reflective interlude between the more
impassioned statements of Louis Armstrong and trombonist Jack Teagarden. Between these two auspicious
dates on a November 1928 session, under composer Clarence Williams' name, came In The Bottle. Lang
provides sympathetic support to the jaunty cornet solo of Joe "King" Oliver before producing a compelling
guitar feature on this informal romp.
Solo vehicles brought the diversity of Lang's influences Neapolitan romanticism, flamenco and the blues,
perhaps others too and the breadth of his musical vocabulary into sharper focus, besides highlighting his
mastery of single string and chorded lines. The free-wheeling dexterity of Add A Little Wiggle, for instance, or
his own lissome bel canto waltz, April Kisses. Or his highly individual concept of Rachmaninoff's famous
Prelude one of his two a capella recordings or the plangent directness of I'll Never Be The Same, an early
example of lyrical jazz balladry.
Under his nominal leadership, in company with some Paul Whiteman colleagues, plus Hoagy Carmichael, came
the charming interpretation of Harvey Brooks' Walkin' The Dog, with Lang's piquant, scene stealing solo.
The only other guitarist to equal Lang's fluency and technique during his lifetime was the New Orleans born
Lonnie Johnson, who later recalled their duet recordings as the highlight of his distinguished career. Guitar
Blues finds the two titans deftly switching solo and rhythm routines in a spirit of mutual admiration rather than
cut-throat competition. Such racially integrated dates, back then though, really were the exception, and for
these and other sides in the OKeh 8000, or so called "Race" series, obliged to adopt an alias, Lang used the
Blind Willie Dunn. Another guitar duet, the plaintive Feelin' My Way, features Lang with Carl Kress, one
of his numerous disciples. Others included Dick McDonough and George Van Eps, son of the aforementioned
Fred. At 83, the younger Van Eps must be the only currently active guitarist to have worked with the maestro.
The broad scope of his musical canvas definitely enhanced Lang's work as an accompanist to a comprehensive
range of singers. Perhaps the word accompanist is too limited a description for the subtlety and sensitivity with
which he could enhance the performances of even the finest vocal artists, qualities to which Bessie Smith's
1929 recording, Kitchen Man and Jack Teagarden's treatment of the W.C. Handy classic Beale Street Blues,
readily attest. Listen to the guitarist's witty, hillbilly fill-ins around the lyric's references to Texas and Tennessee
on the latter, from a 1931 studio date, appositely headed Joe Venuti Eddie Lang And Their All Star
Orchestra. At the other extreme, Lang retrieves the sentimental I Wonder If You Miss Me Tonight, by
transcending the treacly Noel Taylor vocal (and he was by no means the worst singer to have been dignified by
the guitarist's presence) with some sublime support and solo work, both filled with an affectingly heartfelt
sincerity. Somewhere between these extremes came the personable tones of Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards (later
to become famous as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's film, Pinocchio). There would appear to be
little doubt about the identity of the officially unaccredited guitarist whose blithely rhythmic dexterity steers the
vocal on Good Little, Bad Little You.
Soon after joining the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1929, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti were featured in the film,
King Of Jazz. In a studio version of one of the film's big production numbers, A Bench In The Park, the
guitarist adds some distinctively rhythmic seasoning to the sugar coated harmonies of The Brox Sisters, who
are joined towards the end of the number by the Whiteman Orchestra's vocal trio, The Rhythm Boys. One of
them, Bing Crosby, already had begun to make his mark as one of the major stylists of popular song. Arranged
by William Grant Still, After You've Gone, from 1929, is an early example of the supremely relaxed Crosby
style and way Eddie Lang showcased it with such exquisite empathy.
With Paul Whiteman, Lang had reached the pinnacle of the music business, although there was to be one more
milestone in his distinguished career. When in 1931, Bing Crosby began to pursue a solo career, he chose
Eddie Lang as his accompanist on all "live" appearances, broadcasts, films and recordings. It seemed inevitable
that these two great artists eventually should have joined forces, given the crucial role the introduction of the
microphone had played in their respective careers. Accompanied by Victor Young's studio orchestra, Street
Of Dreams, co-composed by Young, captures the Crosby/Lang partnership at its most sublimely lyrical.
Within the following two years, right up until the time of his tragic death, the distinctive Eddie Lang guitar
sound, if not his name, became familiar to millions worldwide through his recordings with Bing Crosby.
Within just one year of his death, Eddie Lang's reputation already had begun to fade. The initial recordings of
the Quintet of the Hot Club of France a group originally inspired by the Joe Venuti Blue Four introduced
the work of Django Reinhardt, whose Romany musical background added another exciting dimension to jazz
guitar. Before the end of the 1930s, the amplified guitar style of Charlie Christian, to be heard with the Benny
Goodman Sextet, opened up yet further possibilities for the instrument. However, the pioneer achievements of
Eddie Lang should not be overlooked. Without any apparent influence or mentor he made all subsequent
developments possible. Moreover, he possessed an open musical mind and music seemed to hold no
boundaries for him, but rather territories to be explored, an attitude far less common in his time than ours. This
selection, although it merely skims the surface of a remarkable recording career, does illustrate that everything
and anything the guitarist cared to play was distinguished by his consummate artistry, superb musicianship,
conviction and soul. All the more ironic, then, to learn that in the year of his death his local Musicians union
directory described Eddie Lang as a banjoist!
Acknowledgments and References:
Who's Who In Jazz - John Chilton (Paper Mac)
The New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz (MacMillan)
Jazz Records 1897-1942 - B. Rust (Arlington House)
Hear Me Talkin' To Ya - eds. N Hentoff/N. Shapiro (Peter Davies)
The Jazz Guitar - M. Summerfield (Astley Park Pub. Co.)
Guitars - T. and M.A. Evans (Paddington Press)
Special thanks to John R.T. Davies for his loan of rare masters and co-operation on this project.
If you would like to order the Timeless Records' CD of The Quintessential Eddie Lang 1925 1932 you can do so through Worlds Records or direct from Timeless Records.