Zez Confrey

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries


Confrey, Zez (3 April 1895 - 22 November 1971)

This skilled pianist is best remembered as composer of the ragtime novelty hit "Kitten on the Keys." The youngest of five children, he was born Edward Elzear Confrey in Peru, Illinois, to Thomas J. and Margaret Brown Confrey. He played piano beginning at an early age and had a small band while in high school. He studied at Chicago Musical College, worked in 1915 for the Chicago branch of the Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company, and began cutting piano rolls for the QRS Company in Chicago while in the U.S. Navy during the first world war. He made over a hundred QRS rolls. Later in New York he cut more piano rolls, including Ampico reproducing piano rolls in 1924, and began making records.

He won fame in the early 1920s as a composer and performer of piano novelties, beginning with "My Pet," which he recorded for Brunswick 2082 in February 1921. He had cut it for QRS roll 100827 in 1918 but it was not copyrighted until 1921 (this is not to be confused with Jack Yellen and Milton Ager's "My Pet"). Brunswick 2112, also issued in 1921, featured Confrey playing his own "Poor Buttermilk" and "You Tell 'em Ivories." In 1923 Mills published his method book Modern Novelty Piano Solos.

He made several recordings of "Kitten On The Keys" in 1921 and 1922, including Brunswick 2082, Edison Diamond Disc 50898, and Victor 18900. Using the pseudonym Jimmy O'Keefe, he even recorded it for Paramount in 1921. Ampico's 1925 reproducing piano roll catalog gives this background information: "It was during a visit to his grandmother that the inspiration for this composition came to the young composer. Awakened one night by hearing strange sounds from the piano, he investigated the extraordinary occurrence and the disturbance proved to be the house cat walking on the keyboard." To achieve this effect, pianists playing the piece were advised by Confrey to "scramble up the octaves in the part which is supposed to sound like a cat bouncing down the keyboard. In other words, make a fist...otherwise it won't sound real."

Whereas "Kitten on the Keys" was strictly a showpiece for pianists, Confrey's "Stumbling" enjoyed success in 1922 as a comic song (Billy Murray's version on Victor 18906 sold well) and dance number. The clever lyrics that Confrey provided are even about dancing, but various dance orchestras cut "Stumbling" without vocals, including Ray Miller's (Columbia) and Paul Whiteman's (Victor).

Zez Confrey and His Orchestra recorded a few dozen titles for Victor from 1922 to 1924, including some Confrey compositions, such as "Dumbell" (19009), "Mississippi Shiver" (19430), and "Nickel In The Slot" (19430). Confrey did lead a dance band at proms and society balls in the early 1920s, but musicians used during Victor sessions were Victor studio musicians, so Eddie King or Nat Shilkret--Victor's directors for popular music--probably led the orchestra during sessions. Some labels state parenthetically, "Mr. Confrey at the Piano."

On February 12, 1924, Confrey performed a "Medley of Popular Airs," "Kitten On The Keys," "Ice Cream and Art," and "Nickel In The Slot" during the historic Aeolian Hall concert featuring Paul Whiteman and His Palais Royal Orchestra. The concert was billed as "An Experiment In Modern Music."\par }{\plain \tab In the electric era a few more Zez Confrey and His Orchestra discs were issued though Confrey himself may not have attended sessions. The two pianists on "Polly," credited to Zez Confrey and His Orchestra on Victor 21010, were Jack Shilkret and Milton Rettenberg. "Prudy" on Victor 21010 was likewise credited to Confrey's orchestra but recording logs establish that this was performed by a Nat Shilkret ensemble. Shilkret's performances of "Jack in the Box" (a Confrey composition) and "Jumping Jack" on Victor 21845, issued in 1929, are credited to Confrey's orchestra.

He remained active in the music business for years and as a composer enjoyed moderate success in 1933 with "Sittin' on a Log (Pettin' My Dog)" though he never again enjoyed the success of the early 1920s. In 1937 he appeared with fellow songwriter Byron Gay and baseball legend Babe Ruth in a Warner Brothers Vitaphone one-reel motion picture titled Home Run on the Keys, and in this he briefly plays "Kitten on the Keys" (contrary to his advice to pianists, he does not make a fist when imitating a cat on the keyboard). His novelty piece was revived in the Big Band era--Freddie Slack, Frankie Carle, and others dazzled audiences with it. Confrey died of Parkinson's disease in Lakewood, New Jersey.