When Max Fleischer was involved in producing the early “Screen Songs” and “Talkartoons” for release by Paramount, his musical people, including his brother Lou and bandleader Manny Baer, would hire various singers to sing in solo and ensemble. Considering how many singers were working the greater New York area, he’d have had a great choice of vocalists.
Yet there were two singers who show up repeatedly in the “Screen Songs” cartoons. They never got any screen credit. But any record collector who knows records of the 1920’s and 1930’s would recognize them immediately.
Their professional names were Billy Murray and Walter Scanlon.
When Fleischer started to make these shorts, Murray was fifty-two years of age. And he was a veteran of minstrel shows, stage performances–and, especially, of phonograph records.
Billy Murray was, without doubt, the pre-eminent singer of comic songs on early records. His career on disks and cylinders went back to 1903, and he’d tried his tonsils on nearly every kind of comic song known in Tim Pan Alley.
Walter Scanlan–born Walter Van Brunt–had almost as long a career as Murray. He went back on record to around 1909, and could do a mean impression of Billy Murray in his salad days. But he could also sing more serious material–not grand opera, by any stretch of the imagination, but the more romantic popular songs.
He took up the name “Scanlan” (sometimes spelled ‘Scanlon’) in the late 1910’s, after becoming associated with songs in the Irish style.
Murray and Scanlan had worked together off and on for some years. But they started up a formal duet partnership in 1928, and began recording for Edison, Victor, and some of the low-priced labels.
They worked, separately and together, for Max Fleischer during 1929 and 1930. Their voices appear in a short made for Western Electric, explaining the ins and outs of sound-on-film recording. And they show up–again, both separately and together–in about fourteen “Screen Songs” cartoons from 1929 and 1930. (That’s at least fourteen that we know of. The Wikipedia page for “Screen Songs” indicates that a lot more were made than have shown up on YouTube.)
Sometimes, Murray would just deliver the “alter call” that preceded the actual appearance of the song on screen, with lyrics and Bouncing Ball. On Oh, You Beautiful Doll, he has “altar call”, while Walter leads the singing. (That’s a song he would surely have remembered, as he had recorded it with the American Quartet back in 1911.)
Sometimes they both get involved in the “altar call”, while letting someone else do the vocal heavy lifting. On The Prisoner’s Song (a relatively recent song to be used this early), they deliver, in various dialects, a poem about “dear Sing Sing”, which leads into the song proper, a National Earache in its day.
And, sometimes, Billy would sing–and,in his way, bring back memories (surely for himself,at least) or earlier days. Billy had recorded “I’m Afraid To Come Home In The Dark” for several companies back in 1908. He gets to do it again for the Fleischer cartoon, using, in one chorus, his mock-drunk voice which seems to fit the song.
Here are some cartoons that have Billy urging his audience to join in the singing:
“Oh, You Beautiful Doll”
“In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree”
“The Prisoner’s Song”
“Come, Take A Trip In My Airship”
“In The Good Old Summertime”
“I’d Climb The Highest Mountain”
“Any Little Girl Who’s A Nice Little Girl’
And here are some on which Billy sings, sometimes in a quartet, which may include Walter Scanlan:
“I’ve Got Rings On My Fingers”
“I’m Afraid To Come Home In The Dark”
“In My Merry Oldsmobile”
There may well be others of the “Screen Songs” of the period in which the voices of Billy Murray and Water Scanlan can be discerned.