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JoeMc on 03/25/2010 at 09:00AM

Moonlighter's Serenade

S.H. Dudley's successor Harry Macdonough, busy as a bee (courtesy Library of Congress)

OK. You're a busy person. You've got things to do. You can't just be playing around on blogs all day. Who's got the time? Eighteen minute stoner jam? I think not. Ten-minute electronic dance anthem? No way. Even a three and a half-minute pop song can seem like forever when you've got to get going. After all, we're all working two jobs now, right?

Well, have I got something for you. Here's a cultural bon-bon you can digest quickly and with satisfaction: one-minute and thirty-three seconds of pure fun, circa 1902. A hundred plus years later, it's as irreverent as ever, and it was performed by a dude who also worked two jobs back in the day.

Take a cable car ride with S.H. Dudley, and then read below for more on this multitasking champ.

S.H. Dudley was the stage name for a fellow named Sam Rous, who was born in Indiana in 1864, the son of a music professor. He didn't get much chance to dawdle even as a child, since he had to ditch high school and get a job when his father could no longer work. But Sam had him some voice, and he started to get work as a baritone with light opera companies. He never lost his fondness for opera, although he soon realized that there was more dough in making records of popular tunes, which he soon commenced to do.

Sam, rechristened S.H. Dudley, began to record for the Berliner company in 1898, and within a few years, he was one of the most recorded and most popular singers in America. He recorded many cylinders for the Edison company, alone and as a member of various vocal quartets, and by the turn of the century, he was appearing on Victor discs as well. Most of these songs were like "You Couldn't Hardly Notice It at All": comic, sometimes risqué numbers like "Miss Helen Hunt" (with the line "Go to Helen Hunt for it"--say it aloud and you'll hear the mild swear) and "Not by a Dam Side" (about not living by a dam, of course).

"You Couldn't Hardly Notice It at All," aside from using the word "fly" to describe a happening dude eons before Curtis Mayfield or hip-hop, works this same mildly outrageous kind of ground with its lyric about the unlucky Willie, who first gets rolled by a country maid who isn't as naive as she seems, and then, as if that wasn't literal enough, gets poleaxed by a hefty gal on a cable car. By the end of the song, he's not only flat broke, he's flat like Wile E. Coyote after the anvil.

They don't quite write lyrics like this anymore. This one was penned by Vincent Bryan, who wrote "In My Merry Oldsmobile," worked with Charlie Chaplin, and directed a bunch of Harold Lloyd comedies. He also died of a heroin overdose, but that's another story.

A couple years after "You Couldn't Hardly Notice It at All," S.H. Dudley began his moonlighting. While still singing, he began to work behind the scenes at Victor Records as an A&R man. He supervised most of the sessions, and also became responsible for putting together the Victor monthly and yearly catalogs, which was a big deal back then. Before the era of radio, TV, and trade magazines, record company catalogs convinced record store owners to stock music, and hence, were largely responsible for sales. Sam/S.H. did this for almost 15 years, while occasionally recording (sometimes even for Edison, Victor's competitor!) and writing The Victor Book of the Opera, published in 1912 (it would go through four editions).

Busy lad! When he finally retired, he did it right: He and his wife travelled the world for twenty years. They maintained a home base in L.A., where they both died in 1947 within one day of each other.

Oddly enough, the man who took over for S.H. Dudley at Victor was also a moonlighter. John Macdonald, who ran Victor's studio and later became a high-ranking company executive, sang on Victor as Harry Macdonough. In addition to being a key man behind the scenes, he was perhaps the most popular ballad singer on the label in the first twenty years of the century. Back in those days, it seems like it didn't hurt to have a little something extra going on the side. Kind of like now, as a matter of fact!



jessibird on 03/25/10 at 10:37AM
You sold me in advance, but where's the music? I searched the FMA for S.H. Dudley but there were no results.

I've been getting into old tunes like this, mainly thanks to the inspiration of the Old Codger archive at WFMU.
JoeMc on 03/25/10 at 10:43AM
Hey, Jessibird--

Sorry, about that! You couldn't hardly notice the song at all! It's there now.
jessibird on 03/25/10 at 11:02AM
Yay, thanks, Joe! It is a jaw-dropper of a song! Plus, I have a new phrase in my vocabulary. Very useful.
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