Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Ben Black: California's King of Rhythm

Ben Black with his banjo (image source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

Ben Black was a San Francisco musician who achieved national fame during the early twentieth century. Black made his mark as a bandleader, banjo player, pianist and as a songwriter. He was born Bernard Black on December 11, 1889 in Dudley, in the Western Midlands of England. His family were Polish Jews who later emigrated to Johannesburg, South Africa before arriving in San Francisco. His mother's obituary noted that she and her children had crossed "from Capetown to Johannesburg in a prairie schooner" in the 1890s.

According to his 1918 petition for naturalization, he first arrived in the United States in 1907 aboard a vessel named the Carmonia. His first appearance in the Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory in 1917 lists him as a musician under his birth name, Bernard. It's not clear how Black learned to become a musician, but from around this time he was working as a banjoist and dancer for the Orpheum and Pantages circuits in a "brother act" with his brother "Zizz" (Isadore Black).

 In 1918 they were providing entertainment at dance parties in the City's Richmond district. The San Francisco Chronicle's society pages mentioned "formal dansant" at 5527 California Street in May featured the brothers, noting that “Ben Black and “Ziss” Black entertained the dancers with some of their original sketches and songs.”  His 1918 draft card stated that he then worked as a musician at Tait's Restaurant, and that he sought a deferment because he needed to help his sister and her five children. (He also back-dated his birth date one year to 1888).  Ben Black's Band continued to play at Tait's Dancing Palace above Tait's Coffee Shop on the 100 block of O'Farrell Street on and off throughout the 1920s.

Sign for Ben Black's Band - Photo from the Jack Tillmany collection, published on the San Francisco Theatres blog

Some time in 1919, Ben Black took a job as the banjo player in Art Hickman's Jazz Orchestra at the Saint Francis Hotel's Rose Room.  He was part of the ensemble that departed in August to record for Columbia Records and perform at New York's Biltmore Hotel.  From September 15 to 26 they recorded 28 compositions, 22 of which were released by Columbia Records.  Five of these recordings went to the "top of the charts," at least those compiled in Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954.

Art Hickman and Ben Black were co-songwriters on three of these tracks - "You and I," "Come Back to Georgia," and "Hold Me."  According to Joel Whitburn's book the latter charted on June 19, 1920 and was America's number 1 song for three weeks. That song brought him a $42,000 in royalties in one year (that's equivalent to around $1,000,000 today).

Sherman, Clay & Co. advertisement of "Hold Me" on a player piano roll in the San Francisco Chronicle December 14, 1919

Throughout his career he collaborated (often as the lyricist) with well-known songwriters like Art Hickman, Neil Moret, Harry Owens and Joe Meyer.  Around the same time, Black was also the manager of Sherman, Clay & Company, who published a dozen of his songs that he either wrote or co-wrote between 1918 and 1922.  He later was vice-president and professional manager of the Neil Moret music publishing company who published more than a dozen songs he co-wrote between 1919 and 1927.

His best-known work was "Moonlight and Roses (Bring Mem'ries of You)," which he and Neil Moret adapted from Edwin H. Lemare's classical organ work, Andantino in D flat, opus 83, no. 2 originally composed in 1888.  This song was first made popular by Irish tenor John McCormack as well as by Frank Wright and Frank Bessinger singing with Ray Miller's orchestra in 1925.  The Three Suns made a recording of it in 1954 which rose to 24 on the record charts.  "Moonlight and Roses" has been performed by well-known singers and orchestras like the Ames Brothers, Eddie Arnold, Bert Kaempfert, Guy Lombardo, Dean Martin, Vaughan Monroe, Sons of Pioneers, Jim Reeves, Lawrence Welk and the Mills Brothers.  It was also famously sung by Betty Grable in the 1940 film Tin Pan Alley and by Gloria Jean in the 1943 film Mister Big.

San Francisco Chronicle (December 9, 1922)

During the silent movie era it, many larger movie theaters hired orchestras to entertain between screenings of films. From December 1922 Ben Black led the band at the California Theater at 787 Market Street.  The band made an immediate sensation with its "joyous melodies" that were "irresistible." Their music must have been very lively and jazz-tinged.  An unhappy reviewer in the San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser hoped for a calm, refined sort of music and remarked that "Ben Black's band has a lexicon which contains no such restraint." Another unappreciative member of the audience had to acknowledge the band's popularity:
Ben Black's alliterative orchestra continues to be a popular feature of the California's entertainment, having now reached the stage of excessive popularity where everything they do is greeted with shouts of delight. This will last for a certain length of time and then it will fade away away, and those of us who are not so hilariously enthusiastic about this harmless form of amusement, will do well to sit and polite [sic] bide our time.
from the cover to the sheet music of "Day By Day in Every Way"

During this time Ben Black's Band of "fourteen jazz wizards" was also engaged at Graumann's Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles Times article showed him to already be a master of ceremonies, noting that Black "[had] the distinction of being the first man to speak to an audience across the orchestra pit there." 

In November 1923, he was hired to lead the band that inaugurated the Alexandria Theater at 5400 Geary Boulevard.  He even wrote a piece entitled "Alexandria" for the occasion.  The ensemble made an immediate sensation with an article in the Chronicle describing the band as "very popular with Park-Presidio people."  Jazz trombonist Herb Taylor early in his career performed with this group. On November 8, 1924 his band moved to another theater also owned by George A. Oppenheimer and Alex E. Levin -- the 2400 seat Coliseum Theater, also in the Richmond District at the corner of Clement Street and 9th Avenue.

Ben Black is first mentioned in connection with radio when he appeared on the election night program in 1924 where he played his composition "Nancy" on the banjo on KPO (which changed its call letters to KNBR in the 1960s).  In radio's earliest days all programming had to be performed live.  His band appeared on a program on November 24, 1925 that was sponsored by the Villa Moret music publishing company.  Many of the works performed were Villa Moret releases.

This notice very helpfully lists the names of several band members - Black, himself, on banjo, Saul Seiff on piano, Clyde Baker and Harry Gulman on saxophone, Bob McQuesten on violin, George Douglas on cornet, Chin Moore on trombone and Roy Bancroft on drums. From the summer of 1925 his dance orchestra from Tait's Dancing Palace had a 10 PM to 1 AM program on KGO radio.

In 1926 his band came to the Granada Theater where he worked with producer and stage manager Jack (John Allan) Partington. Partington was a pioneer of stagecraft having having invented the moving pit band.  In 1919 he also introduced the "prologue"  -- stage acts that precede the screening of the film -- when he was the manager of the Imperial Theater at 1077 Market Street.

Paramount Theatre advertisement, New York Times (August 7, 1927)

In April 1927, Black appeared as guest conductor of the Paramount Stage Band at New York City's Paramount Theatre, and was advertised to audiences as "California's King of Rhythm." The Paramount Theatre located in Times Square the flagship of the Paramount-Publix cinema chain.  He shared the bill with "the poet of the organ," the renowned Victor recording artist Jesse Crawford. 

In September he was given a six month contract to be the guest conductor at the theater.  Jack Partington later joined Black at the Paramount.  Among Partington's papers at the New York Public Library is a manuscript written by Black entitled "The Art or Business of Personality Leadership and Master of Ceremonies."  It's easy to imagine his exotic British or South African accent would be part of his charm.

Ben Black and his Orchestra also recorded for Victor records from 1925 to 1927.  Victor 20690 features them performing "Moonlit Waters" backed with "Sailin' On" (with a melody copied from Dvorak's New World Symphony).

Their recording of "Here Comes Emmaline" made at Victor's studios in Oakland April 28, 1926 gives a very clear idea of the band's appeal.  The very lively and danceable music is propelled along by some pretty fancy banjo work by Mr. Black himself.

Six tracks by Ben Black and his Orchestra are available to listen to and download at

The year 1928 found Black working as a master of ceremonies for the New Ideas Publix Revue on the vaudeville curcuit, presenting variety acts before movie screenings for the Paramount-Publix chain of theaters.  He delighted audiences at the New Saenger Theatre in New Orleans in the spring of 1928  A reviewer for the Exhibitors Herald-World wrote in February 1929
Speaking of Ben Black, as a personality leader, the advertising department has struck a happy chord when they term him "Everybody's Buddy," a title which he lives up to.
Famous jazz clarinetist Tony Parenti who played in the band at the Saenger Theatre described getting a big break from Black:
I left New Orleans in the latter part of 1928 accompanied by Ben Black, chief master of ceremonies of the Paramount-Publix Theatres, which whom I had just finished working at the Saenger Theatre. Ben felt that I could do very well in New York and said that he would help me make the right connections.

Ben Black's star shone very brightly throughout the 1920s.  The Great Depression starting with the Stock Market crash in 1929 brought hard times to Black along with everyone else.  Quoted years later, he described his bad fortune: "Just a few weeks before I bought a ton of Paramount Pictures stock." The blow to the economy and sound in moving pictures brought an end to the era of theater bands and floor shows, drying up Black's main livelihood. 

He continued to organize the occasional vaudeville road show for Fanchon and Marco, Inc. and even worked for the Great American Circus. During World War II he organized U.S.O. theatrical production.  When he passed away on December 26, 1950, his in the entertainment world was high enough to have obituaries in Variety, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the local papers. His funeral services were held at Sinai Memorial Chapel.  He is buried in Salem Memorial Park and Garden in Colma.


"Alexandria Opens Doors Tonight With 'Go Up'," San Francisco Chronicle (November 26, 1923).

Baily, Thomas W., "Motion Picture Heads Take Interest in Programming Staged at San Francisco Staged at San Francisco Photoplay Houses," San Francisco Chronicle (January 5, 1920).

"Ben Black's Band Back At The Coliseum," San Francisco Chronicle (August 28, 1926).

“Ben Black’s Mother Dead of Paralysis,” San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 1, 1929)

"Ben Black's Year's Publix Contract," Variety (September 7, 1927).

"Black's Jazz Band for Metropolitan," Los Angeles Times (May 24, 1923).

Bostick, Nan, “The House of 'Moonlight and Roses': San Francisco's Villa Moret, Inc.” Music Library Association Northern California Chapter Newsletter Vol. 17, no. 2 (Spring 2003)“

"California and Imperial Have New Orchestras," San Francisco Chronicle (December 9, 1922).

"Chat Among the Publishers," Music Trades (February 1, 1919), p. 41.

Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory (H.S. Crocker Co., 1917).
"Crowds Cheer at Opening of Fine Theater," San Francisco Chronicle (November 27, 1923).

"Famous Dog Filmed at New Alexandria," San Francisco Chronicle (December 2, 1923).

“Ferguson Films Draws Crowds to California” San Francisco Chronicle (January 4, 1923.

“Formal Dansant” San Francisco Chronicle (May 18, 1918).

Gillis, Frank and Roy Morser, “Tony Parenti’s Story: The Years in New York,” Record Research (May/June 1960).

Hickman, Art and Ben Black, "Day by Day in Every Way (I Love You More and More)" (Florentine Publishing Co., 1923).

"Key City Reports," Motion Picture News (January 21, 1928).

"KGO Actors to Present Crook Play," San Francisco Chronicle (November 2, 1924).

Landon, John W., Jesse Crawford: Poet of the Organ; Wizard of the Mighty Wurlitzer (The Vestal Press, 1974).

Lyon, Douglas, "History and Reflections of The Great American Circus 1939," Bandwagon, Vol. 11, No. 6 (Nov-Dec 1967).

"'Mr. and Mrs. T's" Well Seasoned Jazz History," Jazz Lives [blog] (January 8, 2015).

"New Orleans Saenger," Exhibitors Herald World (February 5, 1929).

"New Portola To Throw Open Doors Today," San Francisco Chronicle (December 16, 1922).

"Pleasure's Wand," San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser (January 26, 1923; January 27, 1923; March 17, 1923).

Popular Music, 1920-1979: A Revised Cumulation / Nat Shapiro and Bruce Pollock, editors (Gale Research Co., 1985).

"Portrait of a Band Leader-Composer," San Francisco News (August 23, 1949).

Radio Doings: The San Francisco Radio Show Edition (August 23-29, 1925).

Rust, Brian, The American Dance Band Discography 1917-1942 (Arlington House Publishers, 1975).

Sies, Luther F., Encyclopedia of American Radio, 1920-1960 (McFarland & Company, 2000).

“Soldier Made Guest of Honor At Party That Gathers Large Group of Friends” San Francisco Chronicle (March 31, 1918).

"South-Enders to Honor A. Hickman," San Francisco Chronicle (August 17, 1919).

"Tait to Revive S.F. Night Life," San Francisco Chronicle (April 28, 1925).

Variety Obituaries (Garland Pub., 1988).

Vermazen, Bruce. The San Francisco Sound, Volume 1 (Archeophone Records, 2004).

"Yes, Ben Black's Back," Los Angeles Times (December 2, 1926).