Morton Harvey--First To Sing a Blues Tune (W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues") on a Record

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries


Morton Harvey (1886 - 15 August 1961)

The singer's claim to fame is that he was first singer to record a blues. His rendition of W.C. Handy's "Memphis Blues" (17657)--cut on October 2, 1914, and issued in early 1915--is the earliest known vocal record of a song with "blues" in the title.

Recalling the session in a letter dated August 30, 1954, and sent to Jim Walsh, Harvey noted, "[A]lthough the orchestra that accompanied me...was composed of symphonic players, it wasn't their fault that they didn't get a 'blues' quality into the record. The 'Blues' style of singing and playing, which became so familiar later, was just about to be born. Even the dance records of 'The Memphis Blues' made during that period were played as straight one-steps. However, there were a few good old-fashioned 'trombone smears' in the orchestral effects of my 'Memphis Blues' record."

He was born in Omaha, Nebraska. His paternal grandfather, T. W. Harvey, brought the first Aberdeen Angus cattle over to America and later founded the town of Harvey, Illinois. His family discouraged young Morton's theatrical ambitions, instead wanting him to become a preacher. However, at the prompting of Phil Schwartz, an employee of the Jerome Remick music firm, Harvey went to Chicago to try out for a road show of The Time, the Place and the Girl . He joined the chorus and finally got a chance to play the organ grinder.

After the show disbanded in 1913, he found work in motion picture theaters which featured illustrated songs between silent films. While in Memphis he was signed up by the Al. G. Field Greater Minstrels organization. Alfred Solman heard Harvey sing when the company passed through New York and introduced him to Billy Murray, who told the young performer to look him up when the troupe's season closed. When Harvey did, Murray took him to companies for auditions, which in turn led to recording dates.

His recording career was brief, with few Harvey titles selling well.

His first Victor discs were issued in December 1914. "At the Ball, That's All" was coupled on 17649 with Collins and Harlan's "Do the Funny Fox Trot." "I Want to Go Back to Michigan" on 17650 was coupled with the American Quartet's "At the Mississippi Cabaret."

His records continued to be listed regularly in Victor supplements through September 1917, the last release being "From Me to Mandy Lee" (18206). The label for "The Melody of My Dream" (18151) is unusual in that it states below the title, "Composed by 'Unknown.'"

Moderately successful was Harvey's recording of "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier" (Victor 17716). The issued take was recorded on January 8, 1915. An earlier take of December 30, 1914 was rejected. The song was copyrighted by composer Al Piantadosi on December 19, 1914 (the powerful lyrics were supplied by Alfred Bryan), which means that Victor executives wasted no time in recording it. It remained available in the Victor catalog for three years, or for the duration of America's neutrality. As its title suggests, the song has an anti-war theme and argued for non-intervention, but it no longer fit the mood of the nation by the time America entered the European conflict. The disc is listed in the November 1917 catalog but is missing from the May 1918 catalog.

The baritone (or tenor, as Victor insisted) made several recordings for Edison in 1915, two of which were issued on both Diamond Discs and Blue Amberol cylinders--"There's a Bungalow in Dixieland" and "In the Hills of Old Kentucky." His sole Columbia effort, "They're Wearing 'Em Higher In Hawaii," was recorded on November 15, 1916 and issued on A2143, backed by George H. O'Connor's "Pray for the Lights to Go Out." He returned to Victor on December 1, 1916, and again on March 21, 1917, to record an additional five titles, but no performances from these sessions were issued.

Harvey also made many seven-inch discs for Emerson in 1916 and 1917, some of which were issued under the assumed name of Gene Rogers. He was evidently regarded as a capable "blues" singer, perhaps because of his success with "Memphis Blues," since he recorded for Emerson in mid-1916 the songs "I've Got The Army Blues" (759; as Morton Harvey) and "Tennessee Blues" (786; as Gene Rogers). Songs with "blues" in the title would not become common on records for another year or two.

During his recording days he continued to work in vaudeville, first with an old-fashioned "audience act," followed by a stint with the Manhattan Trio, and then as half of the "King and Harvey" duo, which lasted several years. He next became half of the duo Alman and Harvey, his first talking and singing act. After the duo split due to a disagreement over dressing room accommodations in Watertown, New York, Harvey went back to being a single. At times he was billed as "The Rolling Stone." He then met his future wife, Betty--a radio and stage singer--and they became a team.

While touring in Chicago, they met C. L. Carrell, who was selling transcriptions to radio stations. He urged the Harveys to move to Ponca City, Oklahoma, to manage a radio station and build up good will. They remained there 14 years before relocating to the West Coast following America's declaration of war. Harvey spent most of the war years as an instructor on job relations in the San Francisco area for the War Manpower Commission. After D-Day he was in charge of personnel at a nearby Army hospital. When it closed in 1946 he purchased a photography studio in Los Gatos, California. He continued to sing and write songs on the side, while Betty gave singing and piano lessons. He died in Los Gatos.