The Jazz Detective at Work

Will Friedwald has written several articles in this column about the great jazz detectives who unravel the tangled histories of past performances. Now Will puts on his deerstalker hat and tries to solve one of these mysteries on his own. T.G.


In the 1950s, the song "Ace in the Hole" was a staple of dixieland revival bands—nearly all of them played it: Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, Lu Watters & Yerba Buena Jazz Band, The Dukes of Dixieland—and, on the English "trad" side of the pond, Humphrey Lyttelton, Lonnie Donegan, and Kenny Ball. Further, it was picked up by jazz and pop singers who were looking for an unusual piece of material: Anita O'Day, not known for her fondness for old-timey tunes, cut it in 1947, and Bobby Darin recorded it on several occasions, famously as a duet with Johnny Mercer (on their classic Two of a Kind album) and also by himself live at The Flamingo in Las Vegas.

It's a marvelous, vivid song; the lyric has the feeling of being antique and contemporary at the same time. "Ace In the Hole" sounds like an old song, something you'd hear on a player piano in an old-timey saloon, but the general idea of the lyric is overtly cynical in a way that's indescribably modern. You can't trust this world and this life, the text tells us, so you have to be prepared to surprise your adversaries with a secret weapon; you have to do some business on the side, and have a special advantage that nobody knows about. Life is a card game, and everyone is bluffing. The only way not to get taken is to out-con all the other con-men out there.

The song is the grandmother of all gambling analogy songs, from "Wheel of Fortune" to "The Gambler." (If any singer wants to do an album of such songs, write me. There's "Solitaire," "The Queen of Hearts is Missing," "From a Jack to a King," "The Cincinnati Kid," and "Losing Hand," for starters.) Early in the song, the narrator even advises that the best way to keep a step ahead of the wolf at the door is to keep a string "of girls on the old Tenderloin." In other words, it's hard out here for a pimp.

Because of the conflicting elements of the song, I could never tell if "Ace In the Hole" was an actual turn-of-the-century tune, or if it was a new song composed in the 1950s, possibly from a musical show or film, deliberately written in the style of an old time song. The major factor which seemed to settle the point me is that I never came across any vintage recordings of "Ace in the Hole"; for years I couldn't find any trace of it from prior to the mid-1940s.

Further confounding my confusion, the title "Ace in the Hole" is not unique to this song. Before we proceed any further, let me clarify that the "Ace In the Hole" that we're concerned with here the song in which the central refrain begins, "Some of them write to the old folks for coin / And that's their ace in the hole." (The song usually starts, however, with the verse, "This town is full of guys / Who think they're mighty wise.") The first "other" "Ace In the Hole" is a jazz instrumental from 1926. Cole Porter then used the title for a song in his 1941 show Let's Face It. Porter's "Ace in the Hole" has also been widely recorded, by Ella Fitzgerald (on The Cole Porter Songbook) and any number of cabaret and musical theater oriented performers, like Hildegarde, Mabel Mercer, Johnny Mathis, and Bobby Short. (The refrain to the Porter song begins, "Sad times may follow your tracks.")

Because a song title can't be copyrighted, in more recent decades there have been other songs named "Ace in the Hole”—there is one written by country giant George Straight, while BMI also lists an earlier hillbilly "Ace" by Merle Travis and Hank Thompson. The country-rock band Little Feat used the song as well, and so did Paul Simon on his 1980 album-film project One Trick Pony.

As near as I can figure it out, the provenance of our "Ace in the Hole" is as follows. It was apparently written in 1909 by a team of songwriters named Jack Dempsey and George Mitchell; who they were and whatever else they wrote, I couldn't tell you. I have no way of knowing how popular the song actually was in 1909, but after consulting with a number of prominent historians of the early recording industry, most notably the redoubtable Tim Brooks, it seems very likely that there is no early recording of the song.

The first "Ace in the Hole" on records is not the Dempsey-Mitchell song, but a hot stomp co-credited to two giants of early jazz, the Italian-born trumpeter Louis Panico and Chicago composer-pianist Elmer Schoebel. The 1926 "Ace in the Hole" was very popular among hot bands in the very early years of electrical recording: it was waxed by any number of groups with colorful appellations typical of the jazz age: Al Katz and his Kittens, The University Six (a California Ramblers spin off with Tommy Dorsey and Adrian Rollini), Earl Gresh and His Gangplank Orchestra (a band that made a big splash), Black Diamond Serenaders (apparently a pseudonym for The Original Indiana Five), and Abe Lyman and his Californians (recording in New York). There were also at least two recordings made by early German jazz bands in Berlin (as listed in Tom Lord's Online Jazz Discography).

That's 1926. Ten years later, for some unknown reason, band vocalist Chick Bullock cut the Dempsey-Mitchell "Ace in the Hole" in March 1936 for the American Recording Corporation. The flip side of Bullock's "Ace" was another song of the era, "My Gal Sal," so perhaps someone at ARC was thinking about featuring Bullock in a program of old-time tunes. The Bullock "Ace" is our song all right; Bullock sings the full verse and chorus. More than most of Bullock's thousands of recordings (no exaggeration), this is a vocal record rather than a dance record, and it's rather unusual for Bullock to be featured so extensively, even on the many sides released under his name.

In 1944, the song re-surfaces, and the mystery deepens. "Ace in the Hole" is commercially recorded in February of that year by the Yerba Buena Jazz Band in San Francisco, a pioneering ensemble of the traditional jazz revival, one of the first groups comprised of young musicians dedicated to playing in the old New Orleans style (in that sense, one of the harbingers of the future, in a funny way). Trumpeter Lu Watters was the usual leader of the YBJB, and its ranks included two other future leaders in trumpeter Bob Scobey and trombonist Turk Murphy.

This particular session, done for Good Time Jazz (the dixielabel run by Lester Koenig and Nesuhi Ertegun, who would both become giant producers in the bebop era) spotlighted the legendary New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson. Bunk was, at the time, the first superstar of the dixieland revival, and, like the song, was only just emerging from obscurity. According to his own account, Johnson had been one of the major players in turn of the century New Orleans, a trumpet king from the era in-between Buddy Bolden and Joseph Oliver. Now the subject of attention from jazz scholars and fans, Johnson was also claiming that he taught Louis Armstrong everything he knows (Armstrong didn't completely dispute him).

It seems likely that Johnson had played "Ace in the Hole" with him from New Orleans and brought it to San Francisco. Now, Tom Lord does list a private recording made by Watters of "Ace in the Hole" from 1942 (not issued until the compact disc era), but it seems just as possible that Bunk had brought it to their attention. The most important contribution to the Yerba Buena "Ace in the Hole," even beyond Johnson himself may have been Clancy Hayes, the vocalist-banjoist, who sings the lyrics in a very clear, straightforward but lightly swinging fashion.

The biggest part of the mystery is this: after WWII, jazz and popular singers start recording "Ace in the Hole." (The first version I can find after the YBJB is in a piano solo by George Zack, recorded for Commodore Records in 1944.) All of a sudden, in 1947, there were at least a half a dozen singles of "Ace in the Hole" including Gene Austin (accompanied by the Les Paul Trio), the veteran crooner and superstar of the '20s. It wasn't much of a stretch for Austin to sing an old-time song, but it was also waxed in quick succession by sarong-filling movie star Dorothy Lamour (Coast Records), jazz hipster Anita O'Day (Signature), Harry Cool (former bandsinger with Dick Jurgens, on Fredlo Records), Red McKenzie (another '20s celebrity, on National), and singer Dottie O'Brien on Capitol Records.

It seems clear that something must have happened to put the song on the map in 1947—but I can't figure out what: was the song in a movie or Broadway show, was it featured on a big radio show? Did President Truman treat the nation to his own piano solo rendition?

In any case, it was firmly established as a perennial by the start of the LP era. As mentioned, Bobby Darin recorded it twice, and Clancy Hayes sang it it on at least two more occasions, with both Bob Scobey and Turk Murphy. Lee Wiley cooed it with trumpeter Billy Butterfield on her 1957 A Touch of the Blues, and Frankie Laine belted it out. Folk singers like Dave Van Ronk and Burl Ives claimed it as their own, whilst the young Joel Grey sang it in a rather retro fashion. It was also a favorite of old-time-style piano professors, like John Wittwer, Buster Wilson, Paul Lingle, and Poppa John Gordy.

For the last 40 years or "Ace in the Hole" has been the property of contemporary dixieland bands; TJD lists 145 different commercial recordings (I would estimate that less than 20% of these are the Cole Porter song, or other aces in other holes). "Ace" has been played and recorded by EuroDixie bands and other traditional jazz ensembles all over the world. Dixieland represents the song's past, and one would expect that genre to signify its future as well. But you never know; for a song celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year to survive for this long, it certainly must have more than a few surprises in store for us, not to mention tricks up its sleeve.

This blog entry posted by Will Friedwald

January 06, 2010 · 0 comments