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DERBY 733; MARCH 1950



For years the highest praise you could bestow upon a songwriter wasn’t to tally their charted hits but rather to simply say their compositions formed a cornerstone of The Great American Songbook.

There was no actual “book” of course, but rather the inference was that when defining American popular culture certain songs, like certain books and films, were universally recognized as indelible. At a time when few songs were the sole province of just one performer this concept made a lot of sense.

When rock ‘n’ roll came along and infiltrated that culture (some might say “corrupted” that culture) the so-called Great American Songbook began to gather dust and was rarely taken off the bookshelf by future generations.

But in spite of the gradually diminishing importance of this unofficial catalog of standards the most frequent contributors to its contents have remained far more recognizable figures than most of the artists who scored so many hits with those songs through the years.

Of all of the names in The Great American Songbook’s index maybe the most lauded over the years wasn’t an American at all but whose music defined America for the first half of the Twentieth Century more than any other.


Be In All Clover
Though this website is devoted exclusively to the history of rock ‘n’ roll we’ve already touched upon the work of Irving Berlin on numerous occasions, which should give some idea of just how far-reaching his songs had become by this point in time.

The Russian born Berlin came to America as a boy and scored his first success penning songs when he was 23 years old with Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1911. Over the next four decades his songs were everywhere, records, theatrical productions, films and radio, but while he would live until 1989, reaching the ripe old age of 101, his career at the forefront of American music basically ended at the exact time rock ‘n’ roll began to take hold.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the two events were related, at least not directly. In 1950 as we know rock was still the exclusive province of Black America and it wasn’t as if Berlin’s songs had been burning up the R&B Charts before this and the new competition suddenly pushed him to the curb, but the advent of rock ‘n’ roll was indicative of another change in music which definitely was a factor in the decline of the old-school songsmith such as Berlin. Unlike other forms of music rock became increasingly reliant on self-penned material and as a result the traditional songwriter for hire would see their stature diminish greatly in time.

Who knows whether Berlin sensed these changes on the horizon or not, maybe after writing so many songs for so many projects over the preceding four decades he just grew tired or ran out of inspiration, but it’s telling nonetheless that his final musical of note, Call Me Madam, opened in the fall of 1950. After that Berlin wrote sporadically and somewhere along the line he quietly retired. He made one unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1962 with a final stage play that failed to live up to anyone’s expectations… but by then of course it was rock ‘n’ roll’s world and even Irving Berlin couldn’t change that.

On The Avenue
It’s probably not surprising that of all of the artists drawing a paycheck for playing rock music that it was Freddie Mitchell who pulled a song from Irving Berlin’s vast catalog in a seasonal attempt to score some sales.

Easter Parade dated back to 1933, at least in that form, when Berlin used it in the play As Thousands Cheer but its origins actually were in a song he wrote in World War One called Smile Now And Show Your Dimple. That was a modest success but when casting about for songs fifteen years later he revived it with new lyrics and it became the most well-known Easter song of all-time.

When talking about Bing Crosby in the past we touched upon how beneficial it was for artists to score with holiday themed tunes because it allowed those songs to have a much longer shelf life than your run-of-mill hits ever could, since of course each year has the same old holidays to celebrate, most of which use the same old music as their soundtracks.

The same could be said in a way of Berlin, as his White Christmas is the most popular recorded song ever (by Crosby and countless others), and his patriotic hymns still get played by symphonies every Fourth Of July. That kind of communal musical display however doesn’t quite fit into most Easter celebrations and so while still perhaps vaguely familiar in the Twenty First Century, it’s no longer a staple of springtime.

But in the years preceding Mitchell’s rendition it was, as Don Ameche sang it on screen in 1938, followed four years later by ol’ reliable Bing Crosby, and then most notably in 1948 it became the title song of the Judy Garland and Fred Astaire film which was the year’s box office champ.

Since Freddie Mitchell was making a habit of resurrecting songs with similarly dubious lineage for rock then it can hardly be surprising that he chose this for a springtime release. What IS surprising perhaps is that it actually worked and became a legitimate hit in its own right… albeit not without some confusion and potential controversy in the process.

Write A Sonnet About Your Easter Bonnet
Okay… let’s start there, with the most troubling aspect of this release that ultimately was corrected but only after some public arm-twisting that was pretty embarrassing for those behind the initial questionable decisions by Derby Records.

When first issued the record was titled Easter Boogie, keeping in line with Mitchell’s habit of using the term “Boogie” (or occasionally “Express”) to denote its position as a rock rendition of a song.

They’d done this before, turning Benny Goodman’s Air Mail Special into the more rock-appropriate Air Mail Boogie, without any protests or fallout. But with a songwriter as revered as Irving Berlin changing his title seemed to be a slap in the face, but Derby Records wasn’t content to stop there. They also changed the songwriting credits to read “Newton/Mitchell/Heller”.

You’ll notice that the name Berlin is conspicuously absent from that triumvirate and since neither Newton, Mitchell or Heller added new lyrics… probably because this is an instrumental… it’s not like they could be legitimately credited for contributing new material to the old warhorse.

Naturally Irving Berlin and his publishers were not pleased. Maybe Irv was at a house party in Harlem and heard his song blasting out of a jukebox and raced over to look at who was responsible and saw the changed credits, or maybe Crosby or Garland or Billboard magazine’s Paul Ackerman tipped him off, but soon there was a kerfuffle between the publisher and the record company and the next thing you knew the labels were changed to read Easter Parade and the only songwriter listed was Irving Berlin.

Whether he was happy however with the now uncredited changes to the entire feel of the song made by Freddie Mitchell one can only speculate.


All The Frills Upon It
You gotta hand it to Mitchell… no matter the source, no matter the song, the game plan remains unchanged. Equal parts trebly piano and tenor sax, each one taking a part while the other largely sits out.

At times this could get repetitive and sometimes when the material was weak and the rest of the band was apparently dozing off the records could be so stark as to qualify for public relief, but when they were inspired or had a decent song to work with the results could be fairly engaging.

As you probably could guess considering all the space we used to highlight Berlin’s lengthy career and towering reputation, Easter Parade as a composition is first rate. Though stripped of its lyrics the melody itself is surprisingly fresh sounding for a song that was now more than three decades old (the tune itself remember had its birth in 1917 even if the words weren’t changed to the Easter theme until the early 1930’s).

It SOUNDS like a rock song in other words, at least as played by a rock group who are emphasizing the rhythmic qualities of the composition while still adhering to the melodic progression that gives the song its character. Vann Walls’ piano is particularly good in this regard, bruising the ivories at the far right end of the keyboard with relish, somehow avoiding sounding too tinny and weak as often was the case on their records (no matter WHO was manning the keys), but instead establishing the proper vibe this needs… slightly shambolic and irreverent, yet joyful.

In 1950 of course the tune itself was eminently familiar which might’ve helped sway even the less reverent rock audience to its charms, but even without being able to place its source it still works to get across the party atmosphere they’re aiming for, which means I suppose that Berlin wasn’t merely coasting on his reputation, but rather he actually could write a good song that was durable enough to hold up to even such a disrespectful thrashing as this.

Mitchell when he comes in is no more respectful in his playing than the piano had been. His sax provides the necessary tonal contrast to the frantic keyboard and while he largely avoids any sensationalistic honks and squeals, sticking instead to the meaty range of his tenor, it’s a strong vibrant sound, rousing enough to get anyone on their feet while still managing to keep the melody intact so all but the harshest critics of this type of “music” will be kept at bay.

You might’ve wished for a third instrument to handle the next section – an unexpected guitar would’ve had great possibilities – but instead we get a reprise of the piano which offers nothing new and of course Mitchell returns to close it out with a brief refrain, showing their growing creativity still had its limits. But the first half of this record is as good as anything Freddie Mitchell and company have done and whether Irving Berlin approved or not, it makes for a pretty good rock record all things considered.

When They Look You Over
Even as Irving Berlin’s fortunes were on the downturn as the 1950’s dawned his reputation would endure a lot longer than Freddie Mitchell’s. Though certainly the thousands of classic songs Berlin wrote has something to do with that, but in Mitchell’s case it was his lack of original material which may have helped to do him in when it comes to long term recognition.

Even though he’d written some songs in the past – and would do so again in the future – Mitchell was seemingly content at this point to mine the catalogs of other composers rather than try and forge a new edition of The Great American Songbook and that’s no way to ensure your own lasting reputation, even if his re-working of songs like Easter Parade were much better than expected.


Rock fans in general may have little regard for such writers as Irving Berlin, after all it was his kind they needed to overthrow in order for rock to take over the world in the first place, but though styles themselves may change what this shows is that music is truly a universal language able to withstand all sorts of interpretations. Because of this, for a brief moment anyway, Irving Berlin got a chance to see what it might be like to be appreciated as a rock songwriter.

Come to think of it though, maybe that’s why he largely gave up writing after this came out… if this was the kind of style modern audiences wanted to get in their baskets next to their chocolate rabbits and jellybeans then he had a dog-eared copy of The Great American Songbook to burn and an ungrateful Easter Bunny to hunt down.


(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)