|Billy "Uke" Carpenter is one of the great
unsung ukulele heroes of the 1920s whose
highly specialized talent was also in a way, his curse. Because while he could
"flail the flea" blisteringly fast with flamboyant,
multi-rhythmic strums that still amaze listening to them nearly a
century later, and while he alone among the performers of the era
could rival--and at times even surpass-- the great
Cliff Edwards in that strange psychotic-sounding scat style known as "eefin'" that was peculiar to ukulele players ...sadly, Billy "Uke" Carpenter
had no other talents. Unquestionably gifted as a uke player
and eefinist, Carpenter's singing voice was at its best feeble
and at its worst barely on key. Ironically, only when
distorted and warped did his voice sound strong and competent and
above all, entertaining. |
The selections from Carpenter's eef oeuvre presented here illustrate the challenge his extraordinarily specialized gifts presented to those trying to showcase him.
We begin with two classics: Yes Sir, That's My Baby and Everything Is Hotsy Totsy Now. On these recordings, the vocalist is the great pop tenor of the day, Gene Austin. Billy "Uke" Carpenter is credited below Austin as providing "ukulele and jazz effects." The "jazz effects" were in fact the spastic permutations of Carpenter's eef. That the record companies thought enough of Carpenter's strange gift to promote him thus is a testament to his talent.
And what a talent it was! If Edwards conveyed sexual energy in his eef, Carpenter conveyed a sense of floridly manic psychosis frolicking through the fields of psychological disarray, naked and inexorable and altogether unconcerned with social rules of decorum either subtle or blunt. What made Carpenter's eefin' technique so admired was its bipolar range and its non-stop, never-say-die inventiveness. If there were a noise to be made in step with the music being performed, he would make it, with little regard for the distance he would have to travel in pitch. A meow would give way to a whoop, which in turn would give way to tripping stairway stutter of tongue over teeth that spiraled down to the basement with a trollish moan, only to swoop up to the delight of the belfry once more.
Hardly anything about Billy "Uke" Carpenter is known, such as where he came from, or where he went. A photo exists of him from a Victor catalog of the day showing him in blackface and wearing a train porter's uniform, his shoulders sloping sad sack-like and a uke in his hands. Because his trollish moan was reminiscent of the "Popeye the Sailor" voice as heard on radio, cartoons and a hit record of the 30s, there has been speculation by some that "Billy 'Uke' Carpenter" was actually a pseudonym (a typical practice in those days) for the actor who performed the voice of Popeye, namely, Billy Costello. Little evidence has been provided to support this theory, however. Given that Billy Costello himself was only marginally less obscure a figure in the world of entertainment than was Carpenter, and given that Costello's "Popeye" career came almost ten years after Carpenter's, the question "Why bother?" is reasonably begged. (Though the question of the true origins of the trollish "Popeye" moan, found in but a few realms of nature, remains an interesting one.)
The next selection, Bye-Bye Pretty Baby, illustrates the problem inherent in letting Carpenter croon for himself, while the subsequent offering, Mighta Known, demonstrates that he could croon reasonably well so long as he used a "character" voice. In Mighta Known, that character is a betrayed, bitter man who sings the song in veritable grit-toothed fury--a fury that culminates in an uncontrollable burst of eefed ire. It is Carpenter's most successful "straight" performance, attaining a balance not to be repeated again, though he did try (and strangely was given the opportunity to try) again and again, well into the early 30s.
Of the "let somebody else do the singing-you just make the funny noises" approach to packaging Carpenter as an entertainer, his most successful pairing was with the extremely popular female vocalist of the era, Aileen Stanley. In Carpenter's recordings with Stanley, two of which--Flamin' Mamie and Sweet Man--are represented here, we are given the pleasure of a female-male "duet for voice and eef." In his collaborations with Gene Austin, Carpenter performs his "jazz effects" as tiny deranged intermezzi between Austin's sung verses. In his recordings with Stanley, however, he eefs along with her as she sings, creating, especially in the case of the latter song, a fascinating audio portrait of moony songstress and the wordless, happily raving nutcase who is the object of her affection. That the latter song, Sweet Man, is extolling the nutcase's romantic virtues simply makes the effect even more endearing. A similarly successful application of this union of song subject with male-female/eef-vocal duet can be heard in a recording not included here, the standard I Love My Baby. While an undeniably winning recording, the eefin' performed in Flamin' Mamie and Sweet Man are the superior performances.
Whoever Billy "Uke" Carpenter was, the recordings he left behind epitomize the manic, irreverent wackiness that became associated with the ukulele in the 1920s and thereafter, forever a part of its personality.
|Yes Sir, That's My Baby - Victor 19656-B - vocal by Gene Austin (1.2 MB)|
|Everything is Hotsy Totsy Now - Victor 19656-A - vocal by Gene Austin (1MB)|
|Bye-Bye Pretty Baby - Columbia 1151-D (1.1 MB)|
|Mighta Known - Victor 5182-C (1.1MB)|
|Flamin' Mamie - Victor 19828-A - vocal by Aileen Stanley (1.4 MB)|
|Sweet Man - Victor 19828-B - vocal by Aileen Stanley (1.4 MB)|