May Irwin (27 June 1862 - 22 October 1938)

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries


Victor Dog

Of Scottish ancestry, she was born Georgina May Campbell (not Ada Campbell, as some sources state) in Whitby, Ontario, Canada. Her parents were Robert E. and Jane Draper Campbell. Her father died when she was young, and May turned to the theater to become self- supporting. With sister Adeline Flora Campbell (born on February 8, 1875, and known professionally as Flora or Flo Irwin), she went on the variety stage, doing a singing specialty. A.D. Storms states in The Players' Blue Book, according to Jim Walsh in the July 1963 issue of Hobbies, that the Irwin Sisters made their debut at the Theatre Comique in Rochester, New York, on January 8, 1875; the book Famous Actresses, written by Lewis C. Strang (quoted by Walsh in the June 1963 issue of Hobbies), states that the debut was in Buffalo in December, the girls opening with "Sweet Genevieve." The Irwin Sisters appeared at Tony Pastor's Theatre on September 13, 1877, working there for the next six years. When the act was dissolved, May worked solo. From 1883 to 1887 she was with Daly's company. During that time she traveled twice to London to perform.

May became a leading vaudeville performer of the 1890s. Best-known as a "coon- shouter," she introduced "The Bully" to stage audiences. In his autobiography After The Ball: Forty Years of Melody (New York: Frank-Maurice, Inc, 1926), composer Charles K. Harris credits Irwin for popularizing "After the Ball" in New York City in early 1892. Her "Crappy Dan" was popular enough in 1898 for Len Spencer to record it as a Columbia cylinder (7281). Columbia's 1898 catalog identified it as "May Irwin's hit."

Irwin's discs are important because they preserve song interpretations that stage audiences knew well--at this time most songs popularized on stage were recorded by professional recording artists. Also, at this time few other female singers recorded only comic material. Victor labels identify each Irwin number as a "coon" song.

Her record career was limited to three sessions for Victor in May 1907. She cut seven titles; Victor released six. A few songs had been introduced by Irwin on stage a decade earlier. "The Bully," which she recorded on May 20, 1907 (31642), was written by sports writer Charles E. Trevathan, who was inspired upon hearing in St. Louis "unprintable words to the tune," according to Walsh in the June 1963 issue of Hobbies.

Trevathan also wrote "May Irwin's Frog Song," originally issued as a single-sided Victor 5156. When later released on double-sided 17253, it was backed by Clarice Vance's "I'm Wise," Victor carefully pairing comic female singers. Irwin's "Don't Argify" was originally issued on a single-sided disc (5157). Reissued on a double-sided disc (16058), it was backed by a song performed by Alice Lloyd, sister of famous British Music Hall artist Marie Lloyd.

"Mat-ri-mony" (5151) is among the first records in which the title is spelled a few times during the chorus, with lines of commentary then added. Irwin cut "When You Ain't Got No Money, You Needn't Come Around" (Victor 31648, reissued as 35050), from the 1898 show Kate Kip, Buyer. Arthur Collins had covered it on a two-minute Edison cylinder (5469) in 1898. She also cut "Moses Andrew Jackson, Goodbye" in 1907, which Arthur Collins in 1906 recorded for Edison (9442) and on November 14, 1906 for Victor (4947). This was from Irwin's 1906 show Mrs. Wilson, That's All.

She supplied lyrics to some songs, including "Hot Tamale Alley," with music written by George M. Cohan. She did not record it.

Victor V

Irwin's first starring role on the stage was in The Widow Jones, which opened on September 16, 1895, and featured the famous "Bully Song," or "The Bully." A kissing scene from the hit show was filmed in 1896 by Edison's film company. Irwin is kissed by stage partner John Rice (father of singer Gladys Rice). The film was not originally projected onto screens in theaters (the "Projecting Kinetoscope" came a little later) but was watched by individuals who purchased tickets at Kinetoscope Parlors and looked into a machine's peep-hole (some machines were coin-operated). The film's showing time is less than a minute. Without citing credible evidence, film historians routinely report that early viewers were scandalized by The Kiss. This is improbable. The film footage is innocuous by any standards, and the fact that it was released means that Edison film makers believed that this kiss violated no standards of the times. The film purportedly captures a moment from an actual stage production, and since stage audiences were not scandalized, it is unlikely that viewers of the film were.

She evidently made only one other film, the Paramount four-reeler Mrs. Black Is Back (1914), based upon her show of that name. No copies are known to have survived.

Irwin retired from show business in 1920. In 1907 she married her manager, Kurt Eisfeldt (she was previously married to Frederick W. Keller of St. Louis), and the two ran a farm in the northern New York five miles east of Clayton, near Spicer Bay. One source reports that her grand house is still standing; another source states that nothing remains aside from its foundation though some barns are standing. May Irwin Road off Route 12 commemorates her time spent near Clayton. She had a vacation home nearby on Club Island in the 1000 Island area; she also had a winter home at Merritt Island, Florida. She has been given credit for naming the salad dressing that originated in the region--Thousand Island dressing.

Irwin was a wealthy woman. Walsh reports in the July 1963 issue of Hobbies, "A few years before her death she sold a block of property she owned on Lexington Avenue, New York City, from 54th to 55th street, for a million dollars."