Date Posted: 2006-04-28
Butterbeans and Susie
by Lynn Abbott
In 1960, when the music on this CD was originally recorded and released on vinyl, Jodie and Susie Hawthorne Edwards -- Butterbeans and Susie -- were on the tail end of a phenomenal, fifty-year-long career as a husband-and-wife comedy team. Because husband-and-wife comedy teams were so perfectly suited for blues singing, vernacular dancing and confrontational humor, they fairly saturated the early African American vaudeville stage. During the mid-to-late 1920s, when vaudeville was at its height, and the TOBA circuit was in its glory, Butterbeans and Susie ruled the whole rowdy world of husband-and-wife comedy.
According to one report, Jodie Edwards was born in Marietta, Georgia, July 19, 1898; and Susie Hawthorne was born in Pensacola, Florida, December 30, 1899.
Conflicting birth dates appear in various sources. Jodie recalled having launched his performing career as a child, on a neighborhood street corner: ‘Get out there, dance barefooted, pass the hat.` By the time he was nine or ten, Jodie was tagging along with a local string band, serenading the rich white folks of Marietta. For her part, Susie is known to have appeared in southern vaudeville as early as 1911, when she was billed as a ‘coon shouter` at the Budweiser Theater in Macon, GA.
Jodie and Susie met in 1915, as teenaged members of the singing and dancing chorus of Tolliver`s Smart Set, a tented minstrel variety show that was billed like a circus. Their relationship began as a publicity stunt, when they were married on stage with the show, but they did not immediately team up on stage.
In addition to their chorus work, Jodie appeared as an eccentric dancer, teamed with one-legged dancing sensation Eddie ‘Peg` Lightfoot; while Susie performed in singing and dancing ‘sister teams` with two of the era`s most promising female blues singers, Gertrude"Ma" Rainey and Evelyn White.
They made their debut as a stage team in 1916, when the Smart Set loaned them to the Douglass Theater in Macon, to fill in for a vaudeville act that failed to show. Borrowing one of the Smart Set chorus routines, they went on as breakneck dancers. After their first turn, veteran performer Rosetta Brannon advised them to intersperse their dancing with a bit of patter. As Jodie recalled, ‘The first joke she give us: ‘How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?` And I said, ‘Just as much dew as a dew drop drop if a dew drop do drop dew.`‘ Humble beginnings for the masters of argumentation who would bark, battle and bawl their way through 1920s race recordings like "Get Yourself a Monkey Man," "Switchboard Mama, Elevator Papa," and "A to Z Blues."
Jodie and Susie left Tolliver`s Smart Set in 1917, to try their luck in vaudeville. Almost immediately, the famous blues singer, piano player and vernacular comedian Butler "Stringbeans" May pulled them into his vaudeville act. Over the past several years, Stringbeans and his wife Sweetie May had set the bar for husband-and-wife comedy. Unfortunately, the great blues comedian was killed in a secret society "hazing" incident, just a few months after Jodie and Susie had joined up with him. In the wake of his death, Jodie undertook to adopt the Stringbeans persona. To help promote his efforts, Charles Turpin, manager of the Booker T.
Washington Theater in St. Louis, came up with the"Butterbeans" moniker; and at Susie`s insistence, the billing became forever "Butterbeans and Susie."
By 1920, Butterbeans and Susie were known throughout the realm of black vaudeville. Insiders came to know them as Butter and Sue. Early advertising stills capture their patent stage garb, Butter with his derby hat way too small, britches way too tight, and brogans way too large; and Sue, classically gowned, winsome but defiant-looking, her fist raised statuesquely, in response to Butter`s latest bluster. They were plowing the TOBA circuit with Sara Martin in 1924, when Martin recommended them to Okeh Records. Butterbeans and Susie went on to record more than seventy sides over the next six years. According to Butter, the records "made us draw double" at the box office, and this afforded considerable bargaining power with theater managers.
Unlike the rough-and-ready characters portrayed on their records and in their vaudeville skits, Butter and Sue lived out what one race journalist called"
The Greatest Romance In Show Business." With the fruits of their labor, they bought a comfortable ten-room home on Calumet Avenue in Chicago, and brought their parents out of the South to live with them and share in their good fortune. Having no children of their own, they adopted a daughter, Marguerite, to round out the family circle.
In 1927 Butterbeans and Susie appeared in Jimmy Cooper`s "Black and White Revue" at the mainstream Columbia Theater in New York, and, according to Butter, they went on to play â œsome of the biggest spots that Colored acts could play in the South."At the Palace Theater in Jacksonville, We was the first Colored act ever played there, that you knew was Colored. The Gaines Brothers, years ago, played there, but they passed as Cubans"
During the 1930s, with vaudeville in decline, Butter and Sue diversified, taking up residence in hotel lounges, supper clubs, and related nighteries. They
also found a new generation of fans in the "modern ‘ race theaters of the
1940s and 50s, including, most notably, the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1951, in honor of their thirty-fifth anniversary, they were feted at the Sugar Hill Cafe on Broadway, where they were currently headlining. According to an Associated Negro Press report, "the popular duo broke down and wept when called upon to say a few words to a packed ringside audience that included Noble Sissle, Billy Eckstine and Ethel Waters." By this time, they had reportedly "traveled more than a million miles andplayed every theatre and niteclub that means anything from coast to coast".
On their 1920s recordings, Butter and Sue were coupled with some of the best jazz musicians in the business, including King Oliver, Clarence Williams, Lovie Austin and, on one memorable occasion in 1926, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.Â Pianist Eddie Heywood Sr., who had come up playing in the pit of the 81 Theater in Atlanta, played on most of their sessions, and he went on to accompany them on the road. It must have only seemed fitting to tap Eddie Heywood Jr. for the 1960 recording at hand. Also called in for the session were Leonard Gaskin, bass, and Jimmy Crawford, drums. The horn section on "Ballin` the Jack," "There`ll Be Some Changes Made," "A Married Man`s a Fool," "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," is Dick Vance, trumpet; Earl Warren, sax; and Dickie Wells, trombone." œGet Yourself a Monkey Man," "Construction Gang" and "When My Man Shimmies" feature Gene Cedric,clarinet; Benny Morton, trombone; and Joe Thomas, trumpet. The lone trumpet player on "Street Piano" and "I`ve Got the Blues for Home Sweet Home" is Sidney DeParis.
The original producer of the music reissued on this CD, Atlantic Records representative Herb Abramson, was initially attracted by the fact that the classic lowbrow humor preserved on Butter and Sue`s 1920s recordings was still tickling funny bones. Abramson worked closely with the couple in selecting appropriate material for the session. The signal dance-craze number, "Ballin` the Jack," was a shoe-in. When it first hit the streets in 1914, Jodie and Susie were just coming to the brink of their long, eventful career together. By 1960, they could have balled the jack in their sleep.
Parody was an essential ingredient of husband-and-wife comedy, and Butter and Sue sharpened their tongues accordingly on "There`ll Be Some Changes Made"
and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along"."Changes" was written in 1923 by blackface comedian Billy Higgins and pioneer jazz pianist W. Benton Overstreet. Ethel Waters recorded it for Black Swan before the ink was dry on the copyright deposit. Butter and Sue`s parody takes the form of an "answer song," about how there`ll be no changes made. Indeed, "A groundhog will deliver your mail if you try to change your name."
Butter and Sue`s take on "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" may have been inspired by their old friend Fats Waller, whose 1936 recording of it is rife with parody. Taking it one step further, Butter expresses his willingness to:
Fight a whale in the Atlantic Ocean and kiss a rattlesnake for you, If that ain`t enough, it`ll have to do, Until another liar comes along.
The record`s most poignant moment has to be Sue`s heartfelt rendition of "I`ve Got the Blues for Home Sweet Home.` Butter categorized this 1916 composition as a"story blues," employed by Sue in the early days to compete with "straight out" blues singers like Bessie Smith. As Butter recalled, ‘We was on the bill with at least two of them blues singers every week. So, I had to get some kind of song, something that she could sing that was different from their type, something of a story blues, you know. ‘I Got the Blues for Home Sweet Home.`
Now, she used to go behind them singing that, and she would go bigger than they would go." Interestingly enough, "straight out` blues singer Ma Rainey, who teamed with Sue on stage with the Smart Set in 1916, reportedly made a hit singing "I`ve Got the Blues for Home Sweet Home" in southern vaudeville in 1917.
Butter and Sue credited "Street Piano" to their mentor, Butler May, the one and only Stringbeans. The lyrics recall the excitement generated by piano players who would pass through southern neighborhoods, perched on the back of a pickup truck, playing "ragtime opera grand," as Stringbeans himself used to do, back in his Montgomery, AL hometown.
The remaining five titles are classic selections from Butter and Sue`s original 1920s recorded repertoire. In "Get Yourself a Monkey Man," Susie hurls the ultimate insult: "You look like something the buzzard had." "Construction Gang" relates Butter and Sue`s different expectations for a partner. Butter`s demands are clear:
Now will you get up every morning at half past three, Ease out to your job without disturbing me, When you come back you must have plenty of jack, Cause any shirt outside of silk will hurt your papa`s back.
"When My Man Shimmies" speaks to the suggestive power of vernacular dance, with Butter exclaiming:
I got a shape like a tadpole, eyes like a frog, When I start to shimmying, she`ll holler, Hot dog!"
"A Married Man`s A Fool" and "Deal Yourself Another Hand" are enumerative recitations in the street-corner tradition of "A to Z Blues." In "A Married Man`s A Fool," Butterpreaches from consecutive pages of the "good book"
Now it says in the good book on page twenty-one, Every married woman`s gonna have a little fun.
I`m closing up my sermon on page twenty-nine, It says a woman gets tired of one man all the time.
And in "Deal Yourself Another Hand" he coolly "reads the deck" to Sue:
Don`t you take me for no clown cause they call me Butterbeans, I`m gonna tell you what every card in the deck really means:
Now the ace means for the first time that I met you, The deuce means there was nobody else there but us two, Now the trey, that`s the third party, and Charlie was his name, The four spot means the fourth time you tried that same old game, The five spot means five years you played me for a clown, The six spot means six feet of earth when the deal goes down, Now I`m holding the seven for each day in the week, And the eight spot means eight hours that you shivered with your sheets, The nine spot means nine hours that I work hard every day, The ten spot means the tenth of every month I brought you home my pay, The Jack, that`s three-card Charlie, trying to use me for a goat, The Queen, that`s you, sweet mama, also trying to cut my throat, The King stands for Papa Butterbeans, and I‘m going to wear the crown, So be careful you all ain`t broke when the deal goes down.
In the later years of their career, Butter and Sue reportedly toured with Silas Green from New Orleans; spent a season in the trenches with the James Brown Revue; and appeared three times on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sue died on December 5, 1963. After her death, Butter recruited their adopted daughter Marguerite to help him carry the act to its final conclusion. On October 28, 1967, Jodie Edwards died of an apparent heart attack, during a performance at the Dorchester Inn, in the Chicago suburb of Dolton. According to an obituary in the New York Times, he was seventy years old.
Lynn Abbott is a staff member of the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
He is the coauthor, with Doug Seroff, of Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895 (University Press of Mississippi, 2003).
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