the Real Wilber Please Stand Up?!
If you’ve been paying attention, you
know that I’ve assigned numbers to a total of six
Wilbers now. And you’ve
probably noticed that I haven’t addressed No. 5.
It’s finally time, and, well, you’re really gonna get a laugh
out of this one.
You saw part of this
image above when we discussed the Knutsen harp guitar.
Irving Berlin wrote this song about British soldiers going off to
fight the Germans in 1914 sometime after the July 28 start of the war.
After VP&W (still in England) presumably incorporated it into
their act, this sheet music was published in London, likely by the end
of the year. Surprisingly,
it doesn’t show Wilber No. 4, who was still in the act into 1914.
with all of them, the identity of this “one time” Wilber was unknown
even as I was finalizing this article...until I managed to track down
Alan Black, who had once written a cryptic note about him on one of my
old VP&W blogs. By this
time, one of Alan’s colleagues, Mark Berresford of the
www.jazzhound.net web site, had published a photo of Black’s
alluded-to c.1915-1920 group from England called the Savoy Quartet.
And what do you know?
A familiar face?! Alan
and I now agree that the banjoist on the left – who was a singer and banjoist on most of the Savoy
Quartet discs (issued
in the United Kingdom 1915-1920) – looks like our Wilber in the
c.1914 sheet music.
Are you telling me that by sheer coincidence, Vardon and Perry
hired an actual guy named
Wilbur to play the fictional
Wilber? No way – the odds
are too bizarre!
Naturally then, Alan
Black originally concluded that Joe was the one “real”
Wilbur/Wilber. As did his
source, H. Schlemann in the book Rhythm
on Record. As Schlemann
told it, Joe Wilber, an American “came to London in 1913 with the
revue Gee Whizz!...became a member of the trio Vardon, Perry and
Wilbur...very successful at the old Empire, Leicester Square...".
This doesn’t quite line up with my findings, nor do we know
Schlemann’s sources, but perhaps it’s not too far from the
as-yet-unknown facts. From
what I have found (in Variety
and the ephemera, one of which was dated January, 1913), Wilber #4 was
definitely in the Ragtime Six in 1913, was clearly photographed much
more than Joe’s single time, and also appears in every
ad of Gee Whiz!. As discussed
above, this was an original London show that debuted in (or by)
February, 1914 – not an existing American show.
Besides the similarity
in the photos and Schlemann’s book, further supporting evidence of Joe
Wilbur being a “Wilber” at some point came just recently from Alan
Black. He revealed that Joe
Wilbur married a girl named Gwen Whelan in July, 1914, who happened to
be one of the Six Gilberts/Ragtime Six girls (see above Sidebar).
The connection to Vardon & Perry seems obvious.
Final proof appeared in
an article in The Stage, discovered in the final box of clippings unearthed and
shared with us by Perry’s granddaughter Christy.
A review of Gee Whiz! on February 26, 1914 includes this smoking gun: “Messrs.
Frank Vardon and Harry Perry (who are associated with Mr. Edward Marris
in the production of Gee Whiz!)
are naturally much in evidence in the show, as
is their new partner, Mr. Joe Wilbur.”
This confirms that a
Joe Wilbur joined the group and we also know when.
And yet something is still amiss...the Wilber in the entire run
of Gee Whiz! ads isn’t the
Savoy Quartet Joe – he’s Wilber #4, who we know isn’t a “new
partner,” he’s been in the Ragtime Six and VP&W trio since late
1912. The only thing I can
think of is that Wilber #4 began the show’s run (or was expected to),
and the ads were never changed to include the replacement.
The Savoy Quartet, c.1917
Claude Ivy, Joe Wilbur, Emile Grimshaw, Alec (Alex) Williams
All of the
many Wilbers were obviously required to sing and expected to play the
team’s Knutsen harp guitar. Joe
Wilbur is listed as one of the lead singers and tenor banjoists of the
Savoy Quartet. However, in the
two existing images of the group, we see from the headstock that Joe
actually played either a zither banjo or a guitar
banjo. Thus, transitioning
to the Knutsen would have posed no problem (for readers unfamiliar with
harp guitars, any guitar player
can play a harp guitar – the standard neck part at least.
They can then add the sub-basses as their interest and talent
sheer coincidence of the “Joe
Wilbur” name was driving me nuts! Was
this his real name or a stage
should ask. Alan Black just
went and looked up Joe and Gwen’s July 12, 1914 London marriage
certificate for us and it gives: “John
Ernest Mack (otherwise Joe Wilber) bachelor, 24 yrs.”
Ah, so it does sound like
a stage name. One he would
then use from then on, even through the Savoy Quartet days.
Where did it come from? If
we assume that Schlemann’s published scenario above is in error and that
the timeline is similar to what I propose, then Mack (actually, a
discovered passport shows Joe Mack, the "John" turned out
to be another pseudonym!) may have joined
Vardon and Perry in February 1914 (and even then may have been a part-time
member). And thus, that
is what undoubtedly prompted “Wilbur” (note the different
spelling) as his permanent new "Music Hall Artiste" name.
According to Hawaiian Music
expert Les Cook, in 1919 after his stint in the Savoy Quartet "Joe
Wilbur recorded 3 sides for HMV Records, then appeared in a Hawaiian duo
act with Joe Puni ("Wilbur & Puni"). Wilbur
went on to record several Hawaiian sides in May and June of 1923 with 12
being issued on the UK Imperial label. Issued mostly as 'by Joe
Wilbur’s Hawaiian Duo' they feature rather good steel guitar and a
rhythm guitar. One side 'Hawaiian Blues' is credited on the label as
a Joe Wilbur vocal, another side “O Sole Mio” has vocals credited to
G. Berni. Whether Berni played guitar too can only be speculated on,
and we can only assume that Wilbur himself is the steel player."
In the late 1920's Joe Wilbur
returned to the States, for according to Brian Rust in his Jazz Records
1897-1942, he "made a few records for Pathe and Okeh in New York,
with Eddie Lang audible on the Okeh. Rust also lists Joe as vocalizing
with the bands of Joe Candullo and Willard Robison in 1926/27."
Was Joe the last
Wilber? Perhaps his
joining the Savoy Quartet in 1915 was what led Vardon & Perry to next
become a duo? We may never
knows about the unavoidable romances and flings in the
entertainment business, especially
in close quarters like months on tour, weeks on ocean
cruises, etc. It
may be that two of the Wilbers married Ragtime Six girls they had worked with.
We now know that Joe Wilbur (Wilber #5) married
Gwen Whelan, who was a Six Gilberts/Ragtime Six Girl in
July, 1914. Wilber
#2 married while playing South Africa in July, 1912; his
bride was almost certainly an R6 girl.
Vardon and Perry? They
also married established stage entertainers, and Vardon
himself seems to have chosen his own Ragtime Six girl
from the lineup!
know that Frank Vardon married child star Vera Crackles,
at right (b. 7/5/1893 England d. 2/20/1988 Glendale, CA).
But as shown above, we also believe that Vera was
one of the three original Ragtime 6 girls.
It’s likely this is where the two met, and they
must have married fairly soon – the Feb 26, 1914 Stage
review refers to her as “Vera Vardon.”
Vardon” was also mentioned in the Johannesburg (South
Africa) Stage and
Interestingly, that article refers to a possible third
trip to South Africa for Vardon & Perry (and
magazine reported that “Vera Vardon and Dolly King
have remained in SA and joined a touring revue called
‘The Ginger Girls’."
The same magazine in March, 1918 reported that
“Vera Vardon has now gone solo and is appearing at The
Prince Theatre in Houston Texas.”
No, the Vardons didn’t separate; they remained
happily married until the end, as did the Perrys.
Perry was married on Sept 1916 at age 34 in St. Giles,
Middlesex, England to Violet Sylvia Manning, at left (b.
11/7/1894 Liverpool, England
d. 12/29/1969 Evanston, IL).
They met each other while both performing in
“Watch Your Step” in Leicester Square, London,
coming up next in our timeline.
& Violet, the fashionably original V&P wives