Jelly Roll Morton Ė Plagiarist?

by BjŲrn Englund


To have known and worked with

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton

for many years Ö was an experience

to beat all experiences. To love the

guy, to hate the guy, to call him a

snob, saint, sinner, prevaricator,

genius was all in a dayís work.

(Harrison Smith, Record Research # 11, 1957)


Most collectors and critics agree that Morton reached his creative zenith with the Victor recordings made in Chicago in 1926 and 1927. After moving to New York in 1928 he never again came near these masterpieces, even though some of the later recordings are quite good, but already by 1929 his style was considered old fashioned by the younger Harlem musicians. Also, the tunes he wrote after leaving the Melrose company in 1928 never became classics as did many of those 1923-1928 publications. His first New York session was still Melrose-sponsored and is the only one that comes near the Chicago recordings in quality. It had the lest four tunes published by Melrose: Georgia Swing, Shoe Shinerís Drag [really a new version of London Blues], Boogaboo and Honey Babe [too bad this wasnít issued] as well as the older Kansas City Stomps, Shreveport [Stomps] and Sidewalk Blues. *

This was partly due to the fact that the titles recorded in 1929 and 1930 were "published" by the Victor-affiliated Southern Music Company. The word published is given in quotes as they were never actually published but only registered at the Library of Congress (and not at the time of recording but at the time of issue which meant up to five years later!). So, while King Oliver was quite successful with "his" Mule Face Blues and Boogie Woogie (published as stocks by Southern Music; actually written by Dave Nelson), Morton was left out in the cold.

How can this decline be explained? Had he lost his creative ability to compose when he reached New York? Certainly none of the 1929-1940 tunes was outstanding. Is this why he apparently stole tunes? According to Harrison Smith (the West Indian sharing office with Jelly mentioned in Lomaxí book), 18 of the 26 tunes he recorded for Victor between December, 1929 and October, 1930 and three of the titles recorded for General in 1940 were stolen. In two articles in Record Research in 1957 (# 11 and 13) he listed these and showed what he claimed were the original titles. I repeat this list below as many present-day VJM readers may not have these RR issues.

Mortonís title (date of Victor recording)                       Original title (according to HS)


Blue Blood Blues (14/7/30)                                            Majestic Stomp (Hector Marchese)

Donít Tell Me Nothing ĎBout My Man                           Ditto (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison)

(Lizzie Miles 11/12/29)                         

Each Day (5/3/30)                                                           Sing A Little Song Each Day (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison)

Fickle Fay Creep (9/10/30)                                            Just A Lonely Echo (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison)

Gambling Jack (9/10/30)                                                All Girls Are Beautiful Girls (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison)

Harmony Blues (19/3/30)                                               Honeymoon Farm (Ben Garrison)

If Someone Would Only Love Me (5/3/30)                  (Gee I Be Happy) If Someone Would Only Love Me                                                                                                 (Harrison  Smith & Ben Garrison)

Iím Looking For A Little Bluebird (5/3/30)                    Ditto (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison)

Mushmouth Shuffle (14/7/30)                                        You Taught Me How To Love (Billie Ross)

My Little Dixie Home (17/12/29)                                    Ditto (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison)

Oil Well (2/6/30)                                                                I Know Something Now (That I Didnít Know Before) (Gene Back) **

Ponchatrain (20/3/30)                                                      Iím Always Sharing You (Hector Marchese)

Primrose Stomp (2/6/30)                                                 Aunty, Got A Border Now (Charley Pearson)

Smiliní The Blues Away (17/12/29)                                Ditto (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison, Robert Cloud, arranger)

Strokiní Away (14/7/30)                                                     Kisses From You (Hector Marchese) 

Thatíll Never Do (5/30/30)                                                Ne Var (Harrison Smith & Ben Garrison)

Thatís Like It Ought To Be (17/12/29)                             (Thereís Nothing Funny About That) Thatís Like It Oughta Be                                                                                                  (Roy Evans & Harrison Smith)

Turtle Twist (17/12/2)                                                        Turtle Walk (Tosh Hammed & Ben Garrison)

Three titles recorded for General:

My Home Is In A Southern Town (30/1/40)                   Ditto (Johnny Lee Long)

Sweet Substitute (4/1/40)                                                 Ditto (Hector Marchese)

Swinginí The Elks (30/1/40)                                             The Old Swimming Hole (Hector Marchese)

** This would be Gene Buck (1885-1957), one of the founders of ASCAP in 1914 and director 1920-1957

Further comments:

Harrison Smith (1895- c. 1980) was active in the music business in New York from 1913. He was manager, agent and, from 1925, music publisher. According to his own testimony, he never composed anything but wrote many lyrics, so the composer of the majority of these titles would be Ben Garrison. He was "a ghost writer for Jelly Roll Morton, was formerly a staff arranger for [Arthur] Fields Ė [Fred] Hall, Clarence Williams, etc. He was a native of Columbia, South Carolina" (HS in RR # 13). No further information is available.

Smith claimed he was Lizzie Milesí agent by the time she recorded two titles with Morton. The other title (I Hate A Man Like You) was registered by Southern Music with Morton as composer.

Hector Marchese (1901-????) was featured alto saxophone with Arnold Johnsonís Orchestra from c. 1928. He became a member of ASCAP in 1952 and is in the ASCAP directory, but only with tunes from 1951 and later. HS: Majestic Stomp was originally featured by Arnold Johnson and his Majestic Hour Radio Orch. over the NBC network coast to coast Ö This was the theme song. According to Smith, Morton could steal the tunes because Marchese failed to copyright them.

Taush Allie "Tosh" Hammed wrote several tunes with Clarence Williams and Willie "The Lion" Smith.

There is no information available on Charley Pearson, Billie Ross and Johnny Lee Long.

Roy Evans recorded Thatís Like It Ought To Be for Grey Gull in October, 1929 (issued on GG and Radiex 2512 under the pseudonym "Sammy Cloud" Ė not listed in the Mainspring Press pseudonym book!). Though Smith in his article he gives Evans credit as composer, the label only lists "Harrison Smith".

Adrian Schubert recorded My Little Dixie Home on March 25, 1930 (issued on Cameo 0255 and probably associated ARC labels as by Russ Carlson and his orchestra). The Grand Central Red Cap Quartet (acc by Robert Cloud on piano) recorded this title 20 months after Morton (14/8/31: Columbia 14621-D). But notice that HS states "PREVIOUSLY recorded by Plaza group of labels and GCRCQ"! Blues and Gospel Records incorrectly believe Smith and Garrison to be members of the Quartet. According to Smith the members were really employees of the Red Cap Baggage Co., but he did not give their names.

Smith claims Adrian Schubert also recorded Smiliní The Blues Away for Plaza, but this cannot be verified.

All four titles recorded at the Morton Trio session in 1929 were Smith tunes. Strangely, the Victor files and labels give no composer credits! Later, Smith got royalties from Victor when these tunes were reissued in the Vintage LP series and was also permitted to issue these four titles as an EP on his "Mortonia" label. Turtle Twist was actually registered by Southern Music as a Morton composition.

Who stole from whom?

Harrison Smith claimed he and Ben Garrison wrote Just A Lonely Echo which was the basis for Fickle Fay Creep, but this tune had been recorded by Morton already back in 1926 under the title Soap Suds (OKeh 8404 as by St. Louis Levee Band). Soap Suds was registered by Tempo Music at LofC in 1949. Incidentally, Kid Ory claimed he recorded with Morton in St. Louis. Was this Soap Suds (and three unissued titles, 9659, 9660, 9662)? (One known case of Morton stealing a tune is Lee Collinsí Fish Tail Blues of 1924 which became Mortonís Sidewalk Blues in 1926.)

The 1940 General tunes: My Home Is In A Southern Town and Sweet Substitute had been published by Tempo Music already in 1938. Swinginí The Elks was copyrighted by Tempo Music in 1940 (but not published).

About Each Day Smith says (RR # 11): This title I contend to be the greatest Jelly Roll recorded. Jelly had everything. I am at present modernizing the score and have renamed it ĎMortoniaí.

I met Smith just once (June 18, 1960 at a Record Research meeting in NYC) and found him to be an interesting and generally reliable informant. I asked about Jelly Roll, of course, but now afterwards I understand I should have asked him what he knew about Ben Garrison, Charley Pearson, Robert Cloud, Johnny Lee Long and Billie Ross.

Additional comments.

The latest book on Jelly Roll is Jellyís Blues. The life, music and redemption of Jelly Roll Morton by Howard Reich and William Gaines (Da Capo Press, 2003). This contains much new information, especially on Mortonís private life and his economic struggles after 1930, but is also very biased and full of errors. There are two "saints": Morton and Roy Carew (who created Tempo Music in 1938 to support Jelly) and two "sinners": Lester and Walter Melrose. Here is a quote (p. 242): [About Sweetheart Of Mine] By lifting the trio of Mortonís "Frog-I-More", hiring someone to adopt it, and adding his own lyrics, Walter Melrose in 1926 had hijacked yet another Morton work, with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, among others, successfully recording the new "composition".

Anyone reading this must conclude that in 1926 King Oliver and Louis Armstrong recorded Sweetheart Of Mine, a tune that the Melrose company had stolen. The fact is of course that King Oliverís Creole Jazz Band (including young Louis Armstrong) recorded this title in 1923 (when it was published by the Spikes Brothers under the title Froggie Moore and actually only had the trio of the Frog-I-More Morton had registered in 1918). Morton then revised it and sold it to Melrose in 1926. Would he have recorded it himself under the new title for Vocalion of it had been stolen by Melrose? It was not unusual for Morton to retitle a tune and resell it to a new publisher (cf Big Fat Ham, published by Lloyd Smith in Chicago in 1923 and purchased by Triangle Music [Joe Davis] in New York in 1928 under the new title Ham & Eggs.)

The listing of compositions in this book differs from that in Lomaxí 1950 biography. There are new titles, but they also missed the 1928 Melrose publications. One interesting new fact (p. 265): in 1948 Harrison Smith published Mortonís Smart Set Stomp! Strange that he never mentioned this at any Record Research meeting or tried to sell it to his record collector friends. Has anyone seen a copy and is it an original or a retitling of a known composition?

Letís end with another quote from Harrison Smith (RR # 11): Many publishers including Mills, Shapiro, Bernstein, Von Tilzer turned down Mortonís tunes as junk but HOW they would like to have them now.

According to Jellyís Blues, by 2000 Mortonís estate had earned more than $ 1 million in royalties and his publishers more than $ 2 million, making truth of Jellyís words If I had been paid rightfully for my work I would have 3 million dollars more than I have now (Down Beat, October 1, 1940).

(I have not been able to hear the Roy Evans and Adrian Schubert recordings listed above. Does any VJM reader have them and, if so, how do they compare to the Morton recordings of these titles?)

* In 1931 Melrose published Dixie Knows, obviously a leftover from the 1923-1928 period. I have this only as an arrangement for solo guitar by my compatriot Lasse Johansson (published by EMI Music, London).