Nora Bayes

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries


Bayes, Nora (c. 1880 - 19 March 1928)

Reference books state that she was born Dora or Leonora or Eleanor Goldberg--perhaps in Chicago, Joilet, Milwaukee, or some other Mid-West location. Nothing is known of her early life, and the name Goldberg was possibly a fabrication that Bayes herself fed to reporters. She never disclosed where she was born or raised, perhaps because of unhappy memories. She gives this information about her background in an article titled "Why People Enjoy Crying in a Theater," published in the April 1918 issue of The American Magazine: "I never would have been allowed to go on the stage if I had still been living with my parents, to whom the theater and all its works represented the lowest damnation and mortal sin. But I was married at seventeen and thus was free from parental discipline. I was first tried out at a vaudeville theater in Chicago. The Four Cohans were on the same bill...When I was a child of thirteen I had a phenomenal contralto voice."

The contralto had her Broadway debut in 1901 in The Rogers Brothers in Washington. She would not be in another Broadway show for a few more years but enjoyed enough popularity by 1904 to be among a dozen famous vaudevillians listed on the sheet music cover for "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" ("Also Sung With Great Success by...Nora Bayes").

She performed in The Follies of 1907 (the first in the series--Flo Ziegfeld's name was not yet part of the title of shows) but did not enjoy great success until appearing with Jack Norworth in The Follies of 1908, which opened in New York City on June 15. They married in 1908 and divorced in February 1913. He was previously married to singer Louise Dresser. Nora had already been married to Otto Gressing of Chicago and she had three other husbands after she divorced Norworth.

Bayes and Norworth wrote a few popular songs, most notably "Shine On, Harvest Moon," introduced in Ziegfeld's 1908 show. They cut it for the Victor Talking Machine Company during their first recording session--on March 7, 1910--but the take was not issued, presumably because it would have competed with a popular version sung by Harry Macdonough and Miss Walton on Victor 16259. In 1909 Billy Murray and Ada Jones cut the Bayes-Norworth composition "I'm Glad I'm A Boy--I'm Glad I'm A Girl." Bayes and Norworth did not record it. Victor at this time did not generally issue competing versions of popular records.

Three performances by the team of Bayes and Norworth were issued by Victor: "Come Along My Mandy" from the 1910 show The Jolly Bachelors (Victor 70016), "Rosa Rosetta" (70019), and "Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon Man" (70038). They were originally issued on single-sided twelve-inch discs, but two--"Come Along My Mandy" and "Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon Man"--were reissued on double-sided blue label Victor 55097. At no other time was Bayes featured on a record with another singer. A duet made with soprano Helen Clark on December 17, 1913, was rejected.

From the session on March 7, 1910, came single-sided purple label Victor 60013 featuring Bayes as a solo artist singing "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?" American audiences associated Bayes with the song since she had interpolated it into the show The Jolly Bachelors though Ada Jones also enjoyed success with it on records (Victor 16510, Columbia A810, Indestructible 1248). It was originally popular in England with slightly different lyrics (music hall artist Florrie Forde recorded the song), including a line about Kelly being from the Isle of Man. William J. McKenna revised the lyrics for American audiences, and Bayes presents Kelly as Irish, a man "from the Emerald Isle." In the article "Why People Enjoy Crying in a Theater" she writes, "[A]t least once a month some publisher comes to me with a more or less new song, saying, 'Here is another Kelly.'" Billy Williams recorded a sequel to the popular song: "I've Found Kelly" (Columbia A2505).

From 1910 to 1914 a total of 17 Bayes performances were issued in Victor's single-sided purple label series (purple labels had been introduced in early 1910--around the time Bayes had her first session--with over a dozen Harry Lauder discs). Some titles were reissued in Victor's double-sided blue label series. On April 24, 1911, she recorded the Bayes-Norworth composition "Strawberries," which was from her show Little Miss Fix-It, which had opened at the Globe on April 3, 1911. She discusses the song in her article "Why People Enjoy Crying in a Theater": "If you can make anybody cry, you make them forget themselves. The minute you make them forget themselves they are being entertained...Why, the most effective comedy songs I have ever had were those with a pathetic or sentimental theme...The idea that made 'Strawberries' so popular was that the first line of the verse was simply the cry of the strawberry man in the street...It dramatizes the street cries that everyone knows."

She made no records for Victor in 1915 but instead cut three titles for Columbia, none of which were issued. In 1916 and 1917, 16 new Bayes performances were issued in Victor's double-sided blue label series. On May 4, 1916, she cut "Homesickness Blues," one of the first vocal records to include "blues" in the title. Though Morton Harvey recorded "Memphis Blues" for Victor in 1914, it did not begin a craze for songs with "blues" in the title, so in 1916 "blues" was still a novel word in popular music. She cut other songs with "blues" in the title--"Regretful Blues" (1918), "Taxation Blues" (1919), "Prohibition Blues" (1919), "Singin' The Blues" (1920).

Victor executives must have been delighted by the success of "When John McCormack Sings a Song" (45105), cut on October 27, 1916, since on this disc one Victor artist promoted another. The music was by Jean Schwartz, words by William Jerome and E. Ray Goetz.

Victor 45130 was her most popular Victor disc but it was also her last for the company. The A side was "Laddie Boy (Goodbye, and Luck Be With You)," written by her piano accompanist of four years, Harry Akst. The B side featuring George M. Cohan's "Over There" proved more popular. Cohan composed it in April 1917 immediately after America declared war, and Bayes recorded it on July 13, 1917. She became associated with the song. At the 39th Street Theatre in New York City she introduced it to audiences and her photograph graces the cover of the sheet music. But hers was not the first record of the song to be issued. In September 1917 Victor issued a version by the American Quartet (18333), Columbia issued a version by the Peerless Quartet (A2306), and Imperial issued a version by Francis Carroll (5477). The Bayes record was issued in October. By the time opera tenor Enrico Caruso recorded "Over There" for Victor (in July 1918), Bayes had left the company for a rival firm.

Her first session as an exclusive Columbia artist was on February 7, 1918, and she recorded regularly for the company--over a dozen titles each year--until her final Columbia session on March 17, 1923. Big sellers include "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down On The Farm" (A2687, 1918), "Freckles" backed by "Everybody Calls Me Honey" (A2816, 1919), "Japanese Sandman" (A2997, 1920), and "Make Believe" (A3392, 1921). On Columbia A6138 she sang "Just Like A Gypsy," with composer credit given only to "Simons." The same song is performed by the Sterling Trio on Victor 18696 and Ernest Hare on Brunswick 2039, and composer credit on these discs is given to Seymour B. Simons and Nora Bayes.

Though her popularity gradually diminished in the 1920s, she performed for audiences almost until her death. Page 155 of the September 1926 issue of Talking Machine World reports, "The importance of present-day songs from the pen of Irving Berlin has been again demonstrated through the dispute of an American and English singing artist over the privilege of exclusively singing Berlin's newest song, 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.' According to reports from London, Joyce Barbour and Nora Bayes announce that they will sing the song in rival productions soon to be produced there....Miss Bayes is understood to have acquired the rights from Berlin's publishers."

Page 137 of the February 1927 issue of Talking Machine World states, "Nora Bayes, well-known musical comedy and vaudeville star, who is appearing on a popular priced theatrical circuit this season, is said, however, to be receiving one of the largest weekly salaries in her whole career." As late as February 1928 she performed at the Audubon Theatre at 168th Street and Broadway (this is where Malcolm X would be assassinated in 1965) .

She returned to the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey, on November 7, 1927, to make her only electric recordings. The three titles cut that day, with Dudley Wilkinson accompanying on piano, were not issued. Within five months she would die of cancer, and her illness was undoubtedly evident at the session though she continued to perform for audiences.

She died at Brooklyn's Jewish Hospital and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. The 1944 Warner Brothers film Shine On Harvest Moon, featuring Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan, dramatizes the lives of Bayes and Norworth before their Follies success. Although little in the film is based on real events--certainly Morgan's tenor voice shared nothing with Norworth's--the film did make the names of Bayes and Norworth familiar to a new generation. In the book American Vaudeville (Whittlesey House, 1940), Douglas Gilbert summarizes the appeal of Bayes to vaudeville audiences: "Nora Bayes was the American Guilbert, mistress of effortless talent in gesture, poise, delivery, and facial work. No one could outrival her in dramatizing a song. She was entrancing, exasperating, generous, inconsiderate--a split personality; a fascinating figure."