In the years immediately following the horror of World War 1 (1914-18), society began to throw off many of its old inhibitions about public behaviour. Who cared about behaving "just so" when two years ago you had been up to your neck in mud and had watched the man beside you cut in half by a machine gun burst. After four years of hell, people were looking to enjoy themselves and didn't really care about "what the neighbours thought".
Popular music caught the tempo of the times and also underwent a shift in style and presentation. People were looking to get out and have a good time. They wanted to have places they could go where they could listen to music and get up and dance if the spirit moved them. The problem was the only dance music available that wasn't a waltz or a minuet, was being played by people who were the wrong colour.
There was a need for white musicians to play something a little bit more extravagant than the Dixieland jazz they had been playing up until then. Quite a few of the musicians came directly from the Minstrel Show circuit where they had been playing similar music for awhile and others from the pits of Vaudeville houses and Broadway stages.
According to Dutch music historian Hans Eekoff, it was in November of 1921 that a nine piece band called The California Ramblers gathered to record the song "The Sheik and Georgia Rose". For the next ten years they recorded for any label that would take them and under a variety of different names.
For about half the labels they went by the name The Golden Gate Orchestra, which for a bunch of guys from Ohio was an odd sort of name. But the thing for bands from the east in those days was to sound as exotic as possible and San Francesco, even then, was considered a little out there.
For all intents and purposes this was the first time African American music was taken off the stage and brought into the clubs for white audiences. Of course, they were all sanitized packages and played strictly by white musicians. The songs were primarily by people like Al Jolson who offered pale (so to speak) imitations of real jazz and blues music to make them acceptable for consumption by the elite of New York City looking to live it up.
Everything was tightly scored and arranged so as one musician said "bands and band members were completely interchangeable" – any player in those days could join a new band and be guaranteed of knowing exactly what notes he'd be required to play for each song. Even solos were carefully planned out and there was none of the improvisation we now associate with Jazz.
Document Records' new release Crazy Words, Crazy Tune by The Golden Gate Orchestra is a wonderful package containing some beautifully re-mastered recordings from the hey day of the band. No matter what name they recorded under or whatever changes the line up had gone through, they still managed to produce tight versions of all their material.
Like the Minstrel Shows before them, and hundreds of pop, rock, and soul acts to follow them, The Golden Gate Orchestra were just doing what the industry wanted from popular music; something a little spicy to give the audiences a thrill, but not so hot as to offend anyone's sensibilities.
When you consider people like the Dorsey brothers passed through as players in the band, and their repertoire of songs included "Ain't She Sweet" and "When The Red Red Robin", you can see how big an influence they and bands of a similar nature had on popular music. Their upbeat and peppy style was the perfect antidote to what everybody had experienced in the previous decade.
The very frivolity that made them seem somewhat superficial to our more sophisticated ears is what made them so popular in their time. Each one of their songs is a perfect example of a model for a "popular" song. If they did nothing else, bands like these cemented the popular song as a legitimate form in music, paving the way for people like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Nat King Cole as writers, not to mention all the Swing bands of the thirties and forties.
Songs like "Everything Is Hotsy Totsy Now" with their sham African American sound might sound slightly racist and very silly to our ears but, were considered fun, funny, and a little risqué in their heyday. Anyway, how much different is it from today's pop music with its sanitized versions of Hip-Hop all over the radio? At least the members of The Golden Gate Orchestra played instruments and were musicians – they didn't rely on electronic gear and tapes to sound good.
I can guarantee that if you're over the age of twelve you will be more likely to tap your feet and enjoy yourself listening to the Golden Gate Orchestra than anything you hear on popular radio today.