Notes from Joel Harris

Joel Harris is a fan of Miss Etting, and he sent me the following notes…

Ten Cents A Dance

As you probably know, this song was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1930 for the Florenz Ziegfeld musical “Simple Simon.”

What you may not know is that it wasn’t written for Ruth Etting at all, but rather for another singer by the name of Lee Morse!

You may recall her name from the compact disc “Flappers, Vamps and Sweet Young Things” which included her recording of “Moanin’ Low.” In fact, this particular song was the signature tune of one of your cousin’s “competitors,” another torch singer by the name of Libby Holman, whose recording of “Am I Blue” is on the same compact disc.

Unfortunately for Lee Morse, she was an alcoholic. When the show opened in Boston, she showed up drunk and was fired on the spot by Florenz Ziegfeld – what to do?

Ruth Etting had just starred in Ruth Selwyn’s unsuccessful musical “Nine-Fifteen Revue” which closed in New York in less than a week; however, she did introduce Ted Koehler’s and Harold Arlen’s great song “Get Happy” which became one of her most famous hit records. As a matter of fact, George Gershwin called her handling of the song “the most exciting finale he had ever heard in a theatre.”

Florenz Ziegfeld begged your cousin to replace Lee Morse and, of course, she accepted.

However, to quote Ruth Etting, “the girl they’d originally hired had a full three-octave range. On my best day I never had much more than an octave and a half. There was no way I could sing that song. So Richard Rodgers, Larry Hart and I stayed up all night cutting down the range to fit my voice. Maybe that’s how the story started that the song was written for me. It wasn’t written for me. It was rewritten for me.”

Cheryl, she was such a modest and unassuming human being. What a sweetheart! The rest, as they say, is history. “Ten Cents A Dance” became HER signature tune as well as one of the most endearing and enduring songs of the era!

“On another occasion a song failed to get across. Ziegfeld asked Ruth to go to Boston to sing the number at a single performance. ‘If the audience doesn’t respond, I’ll know it’s the song, not the girl,’ he explained. Ruth hesitated out of deference to the other performer’s feelings, but finally she sang it and exited to an ovation.”

“Why would she perform such favours?” “‘I admired Mr. Ziegfeld and was grateful to him. It was wonderful to be in shows where everything was the best he could buy. That was his secret: to get the best…that was Ziegfeld’s method.’

“…So when he asked me to do these favors, I was glad to. I wanted to repay him for what he’d given me.”

To Ruth, My Standby, Love, Ziegfeld.

“In recognition of Ruth’s loyalty Ziegfeld presented her with a signed photograph of himself:

To Ruth,
My Standby,

I recall from an article that this was her most prized possession!

In addition, Ruth Etting had the finest composers and lyricists of the era, including the great Irving Berlin, lining up for her to interpret their songs.

Irving Berlin had personally recommended her to Florenz Ziegfeld for “Ziegfeld Follies of 1927; he, of course, wrote both words and music and he especially appreciated how clearly she enunciated his lyrics.

Ruth Etting, is spite of her limited vocal range, took a song and made it her own by bending and twisting notes and changing tempos, sometimes two or three times during the course of a song.

I’m sure you’ve also heard it said that she was such a convincing torch singer because she didn’t just sing the song – thanks to her mentally and physically abusive husband, she actually lived it.

As far as I’m concerned, after she sang a song, it was sung – case closed! She was great!

Second story: {a short one}

I also recall from several articles that when the song “Ten Cents A Dance” became a hit record, it brought to the public’s attention the plight of the “taxi-hall dancer.”  In many cases, they were just a step away from prostitution and a group of them took the song as their “cause celebre” and together with The Chicago Police Department lobbied the local politicians in an effort to pass a law outlawing their very demeaning profession. They were eventually successful and one and all regarded Ruth Etting as their hero!

– Joel Harris

2 Responses to Notes from Joel Harris

  1. bob callahan says:

    I don’t really remember Miss Edding,since I was born in 1927, but I know the song since it was played as a jazz number, specifically by Shorty Rogers in an album titled,”Shorty Rogers plays Richard Rodgers. Recently, for some unknown reason, I couldn’t get the tune out of my head, much to the annoyance of my wife, since I sing it constantly. As a result I searched it on the internet and found the 1930 recording by Ruth Edding. Since then I have read her bio and became enamored,of the one and a half octave rendition. Thank your for your info. Bob Callahan

  2. Pingback: | Ruth Etting’s “Ten Cents a Dance,” a 2011 inductee to National Recording Registry

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