“China Boy” was written in 1922 by Dick Winfree and Phil Boutelje. Winfree was a member of the west coast dance band led by Art Hickman, and Boutelje was a pianist and author who arranged for and played with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra before becoming director of Paramount Pictures and United Artists Studios. He scored for films and was twice nominated for Academy Awards.
The song was introduced in vaudeville by Henry E. Murtagh and became very popular with Dixieland groups, such as the McKenzie/Condon Chicagoans, Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Four, and Muggsy Spanier. Paul Whiteman’s 1929 recording, which was arranged by Lenny Heyton and featured a solo by Bix Beiderbecke, popularized the tune. The song lost favor for a while but was revived by Benny Goodman’s trio in 1935 and performed by Goodman’s big band at their famous Carnegie Hall Concert in 1938. Teddy Wilson recorded it as a piano solo in 1941. The song appeared in the 1940 film Strike Up the Band and in 1955’s The Benny Goodman Story.
Over a period of time the song charted several times:
Oddly, “China Boy” was published in the same year that the Cable Act was passed. Previously, a woman lost her U.S. citizenship if she married a foreigner. The Cable Act guaranteed citizenship to women as long as they married an alien eligible for naturalization which excluded Asians. The law was amended in 1931 to include Asians and was repealed in 1936.
After the hot music of the twenties and the stock market crash of 1929, the nation was ripe for more soothing music. Although this fox trot had a bouncy feeling to it, it was almost a lullaby:
China boy, go sleep
Close your eyes, don’t peep
Sandman soon will come
While I softly hum.
“China Boy” has been featured in recordings by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, and vocalist Mildred Bailey. The Xavier Cugat Orchestra performed it as a mambo. More recent recordings of the song are by saxophonist Ken Peplowski (1999), pianists Ralph Sutton (1991) and Eddie Higgins (2003), trumpeter Randy Sandke (1993), and saxophonist Steve Wilkerson (2001).