Who, or what, was the Big Butter And Egg Man in Louis Armstrong's Hot Five recording?
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With best wishes,
Sandy Brown Jazz
Now she wants…a butter an egg man
From way out in the west
She wants somebody…who's workin' all day
So she's got money…when she wants to play
Given the innuendo in some song titles at the time when Big Butter And Egg Man
was written by Percy Venable in 1926, you could be forgiven for thinking that it referred to the man’s physical attributes. No so. The 'Big Butter And Egg Man' is the 'Big Spender'. So there is irony here as at the time of writing, dairy farmers in the UK are protesting that they are unable to produce milk for the price they are
being paid for it. I guess few of them are going to nightclubs and splashing the cash.
There was a time when dairy famers, particularly in America, were clearly well-off, but there was also a time when young children in the UK had free milk at school every morning in a glass 'milk bottle' a third of a pint in size. They would drink the milk through a straw during morning break and on cold winter mornings, warm it up first on the large, school cast-iron radiators. Those were days when the milk was whole fat and would have a creamy band at the top ('top-of-the-milk') that was a 'treat' on breakfast cereals. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher abolished free school milk in 1970. Times change.
Wikipedia tells us that record producer Percy Venable wrote Big Butter And Egg Man
specifically for Louis Armstrong and singer May Alix. Apparently Earl Hines claimed that Alix would often tease young Louis during performances – he was quite shy and had a crush on May. There were times when Louis, looking at May, would forget the lyrics and the band would shout "Hold it, Louis! Hold it."
Here's Louis and the Hot Five playing and singing the number with May Alix.
James Lincoln Ciller, Louis' biographer, says of Louis' solo: "The most important aspect of this solo, and indeed of Armstrong's playing on the record as a whole, is the air of easy grace with which he carries the melody. He is utterly confident, utterly sure what he has to say is important and will be listened to."
In her book Texas Guinan: Queen of the Night Clubs
, Louise Berliner refers to a big butter-and-egg man. Describing the El Fey Club she writes:
One night a man with a slow mid-western drawl came in and cheerfully began dispensing fifty-dollar bills to all the dancers. He bought everyone in the house a drink and made no fuss when he got the bill. Thrilled by this rare phenomenon, Tex decided that her guest needed a proper introduction….
"Folks, here's a live one, a buyer, a good guy, a sport of the old school, encourage him." ……
"What's your name?" asked Tex.
"Nix on the name," said the unknown.
"What's your racket, then?" queried the hostess.
"I'm a big man in dairy produce," he muttered.
"That's applesauce to this mob. I'll send you right in," and Tex shouted,
"He's a big butter and egg man."
Night after night, the big spender came in and ran up large bills. Everyone soon knew him as the big butter-and-egg man, and the expression quickly spread throughout New York……..
In 1929, Brian Foy directed a film Queen Of the Night Clubs
that told the story of a legendary bar hostess and silent film actress with Texas Guinan playing "Texas Malone", a character thought to be based upon Guinan herself. George Raft was a friend of Guinan and this was his first film. The movie has since been lost and no copies are thought to be available. Nevertheless we do have a video clip of Texas Guinan talking:
and short, curtailed video clip of the trailer for the movie:
Now pretty clothes…they'll never be mine
But what she told me the other day
I hope she don't change her mind
Wiktionary describes the Big Butter and Egg Man as ‘a prosperous dairy farmer (or other wealthy rural citizen), seen as coming into the big city and ostentatiously living it up’ and quotes a passage from Mezz Mezzrow’s book Really the Blues: ‘He puffed on the big cigar that he always had stuck in his face and posed back like a big butter-and-egg man.’
Big spenders in nightclubs are interesting in that they are clearly welcomed for their money but seen as suckers by the girls (as Texas Guinan pronounced quite clearly). This is reflected again in the show Sweet Charity
and the number written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields:
The minute you walked in the joint,
I could see you were a man of distinction,
A real big spender.
Good-lookin', so refined,
Say, wouldn't you like to know what's going on in my mind?
So let me get right to the point.
I don't pop my cork for ev'ry guy I see.
Hey! Big Spender,
Spend a little time with me.
The Dorothy Fields website says: ‘Big Spender shows us these jaded ladies go through the motions of pretending to be turned on by and interested in the sorry losers who show up as their prospective clients …’. Even so, it makes a great showstopper in Bob Fosse’s film of Sweet Charity
Now she wants…a butter an egg man
A great big butter and egg man
From way down south
Which brings us to a couple of other jazz interpretations of Big Butter And Egg Man
. The number is usually seen as a 'traditional jazz' standard, but watch this video of Wynton Marsalis playing it:
As one correspondent says: ‘There's no law that says this song has to be at a certain tempo. That's why jazz is all about feeling. One night you might want to play it at a moderate tempo, the next night you might want to slow it down to a ballad tempo. As long as it swings it doesn't matter.’
Now try this version by Scott Hamilton and Rossano Sportiello videoed at an Arbor Records recording session in 2010:
There are fine solos by both the saxophonist and pianist. The number appears on the album Midnight At Nola’s Penthouse
released in 2011. The text about the album says: ‘…there is also good humour in this album, with unexpected choices like Come Back to Sorrento
(a salute to Sportiello's Italian heritage?) and Big Butter And Egg Man
(which ends with one of Rossano's cheeky postscripts).’
From 1926 to now. In some places, big spending dairy farmers have disappeared, but it seems like some of the best traditional jazz numbers have a life of their own.