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Royal Garden Blues (1919)

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Origin and Chart Information
...”’Royal Garden Blues’ is an indomitable romp, impossible to deliver offhandedly....”

- Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930

Rank 204
Words and Music Clarence Williams
Spencer Williams

Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams were not related although they were both born in New Orleans a few years apart (1898 and 1889, respectively). Clarence was not only a pianist who accompanied many of the blues singers such as Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and his wife Eva Taylor on their recordings, but he led his own band which occasionally included Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.


More on Clarence Williams at JazzBiographies.com

He was also an astute business man, a music publisher, and an entrepreneur whose credits as a composer have often come into question. “Williams dominated the blues industry in the 1920s....[His] name is on many good songs, usually sharing credit with a better songwriter....Williams seems to have been the leading proponent of the cut-in, the composer quid for the publisher quo,” say David A. Jasen and Gene Jones in their book Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930.

Jasen and Jones go on to say, “The unknowns and the masters all struck their bargains with Williams for the same reason: he would publish their songs and then plug them every way to Sunday. His genius was for promotion, not composition....Clarence Williams published three Spencer Williams songs--and shared writer credit on them in 1919. Each was a hit and each was a gem of songwriting craft.” In addition to “Royal Garden Blues” they collaborated on “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None o’ This Jelly Roll” and “Yama Yama Blues.”

Clarence is credited on “Squeeze Me” (for which Andy Razaf claimed lyric credit), “West End Blues” (a Joe Oliver tune for which Williams later took credit as co-writer), “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” (which Louis Armstrong claimed to have written), and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home?” (a top jazz standard written with Charles Warfield who disputed Williams’ contribution). But in all fairness to Clarence, he enjoyed many collaborations that were not disputed and wrote some songs of his own such as “Sugar Blues.”

Spencer was also a pianist and entrepreneur who spent time in the mid-twenties accompanying and writing for entertainer Josephine Baker and also performed with Fats Waller. He lived abroad between 1925 and 1957 when he returned to the U.S. He collaborated on several well-known compositions which include “I Ain’t Got Nobody” (his first hit written with Roger Graham and Dave Peyton in 1916), “I Found a New Baby” and “Everybody Loves My Baby” with Jack Palmer (the latter introduced by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five), and “Basin Street Blues.”


More on Spencer Williams at JazzBiographies.com

Although written in 1919 “Royal Garden Blues”’ didn’t really catch on until 1921 when it charted twice: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (led by cornetist Nick La Rocca, composer of “Tiger Rag”) took it to third place with vocalist Al Bernard. The version by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds reached number thirteen. Bix Beiderbecke also famously recorded it, and it entered the repertoire of several big bands such as Tommy Dorsey’s and Benny Goodman’s in the thirties.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

The tune was named for the Royal Garden Dance Hall in Chicago where King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band performed and where Beiderbecke frequently hung out. The song was first recorded in 1920 by the George Morrison Jazz Orchestra out of Denver, Colorado, and was quickly picked up by blues singers Mamie Smith, Daisy Martin, and Ethel Waters.

Jasen and Jones say that “‘Royal Garden Blues’ is perhaps the first popular song based on a riff. (This is a melody that achieves its effect from a repetitive rhythm, rather than from an interesting sequence of notes. ‘Twelfth Street Rag’ and ‘In the Mood’ are examples of riff-based writing.) ...[It] is an indomitable romp, impossible to deliver offhandedly; its heat is built-in. It is made of two twenty-four bar strains cleverly joined by a four-bar ‘belt’ that allows for a tempo shift between the two main themes. The first theme is lazy and its harmony--but not its melody--is dotted with blue notes. After the four-bar breather, the rat-a-tat riff cuts loose. The melody of the second strain spans only six notes, and it bursts with energy.”

Duke Ellington recorded Billy Strayhorn’s medium tempo swing arrangement twice (1946 and 1947) and again in duo with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges on Back to Back. The song was an instrumental feature in Broadway’s Black & Blue: A Musical Revue which ran for 829 performances and won several Tony’s including Best Musical (1989) and a Best Actress award for Ruth Brown.

Louis Armstrong recorded “Royal Garden Blues” several times, and it was picked up by Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Pell, and several Dixieland bands. Branford Marsalis titled his 1986 album after the song, and it appears on recordings by clarinetist Don Byron, pianist Marian McPartland, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, saxophonist Ken Peplowski, and ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox with clarinetist Vern Baumer on Salute to the Jazz Age (2006).

Our historian for JazzStandards Chris Tyle recorded the tune on his 1995 CD Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Jazz Band. “One little bit of info on our recording,” says Chris, “is that it was taken from the original published stock arrangement, so it’s a bit different than the way bands generally play it, with the middle section a series of breaks for the front-line instruments, usually trumpet, clarinet, trombone.”

- Sandra Burlingame

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