(Felix Barnard and Johnny S Black (music)
Ben Selvin and his Novelty Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
Over the years I have regularly mentioned one of the most significant moments of popular instrumental history in the 20th century, that of David Rose’s million selling Holiday for Strings of 1944. Its influence on light music is still being felt right up to the present day.
But let’s go back nearly a quarter of a century to another important date, 1920, and see what was happening then in the music industry. It was the year of the first known ‘pop’ disc to sell a million - Dardanella - a fictitious Italian or Spanish girl’s Christian name illustrated on a 1919 sheet music cover and inspired by the narrow strait in northwest Turkey. It would eventually sell a staggering 6,500,000 records. Ben Selvin (1898-1980), violinist, bandleader and recording manager, made more band discs than anybody else in the business - 9,000. Dardanella was written by Felix Bernard and Johnny S Black (music) and Fred Fisher (words). Its popularity was due to its continuous pattern in the bass, and is probably the first example of ‘boogie woogie’ in American music. There’s also an obvious touch of ‘shuffle’ tempo about it.
If you happened to have inherited any old 78rpm records, this sound will immediately take you back to those scratchy pre-electric days now of course cleaned up. After a quote from the end of the tune acting as the intro, it goes straight into a four bar rhythmic notation sounding like the first bar of Yankee Doodle. Also there’s a clear reminder of Poldini’s Dancing Doll and plenty of cutting syncopation from the world of ragtime.
Apart from its popularity another claim to Dardanella’s fame comes from a lawsuit in which Fisher sued Jerome Kern for plagiarism, insisting that the boogie-woogie-like recurring bass theme Kern used in his song Ka-lu-a was a steal from a similar device in Dardanella.
It took a good deal of arrogance for Fisher to sue Kern, since Dardanella had itself actually been stolen involving Fisher in a lawsuit of his own. It started out as Turkish Tom Tom a piano rag by Johnny S Black. Fisher wrote words for it and became its publisher, now using the new title of Dardanella. After its initial success, Felix Bernard, a vaudevillian came forward with a claim that it was he and not Black who had composed the main melody and renounced his prior rights to it for a cash settlement of 100 dollars. Bernard went to court to claim some of the royalties, insisting Fisher had defrauded him. Bernard’s case was dismissed but all later sheet music carried Fisher’s name as lyricist, while Black and Bernard are named as composers.
To hear Dardanella try Google.