Thursday, 17 March 2011

Wild Bill meets Rag Mop

In late 1949 or early '50 when I was 10, the Ames Brothers' record of Rag Mop exploded; came out of nowhere to the number-one spot on Martin Block's WNEW Saturday morning countdown of the top records. I read somewhere that Rag Mop was intended as the B side; the flip side, Sentimental Me, was supposed to be the hit.

I remember watching Eddie Condon's Floor Show on TV. Rag Mop had just begun its ascent, and was already in my record collection. I wasn't yet a jazz fan but I enjoyed Condon's TV show. I liked the gruff, wisecracking trumpet player who seemed to play out of the side of his mouth.

In one segment Condon would ask the studio audience for requests. Usually it was a standard like It Had to Be You. In the early days of live television, the studio audience for a show like this was anyone they could drag in off the street. So Condon went into the audience to ask for requests and some teenager yelled out, "Rag Mop!" It was obvious Condon had never heard of it. The guys in the band thought the title was hilarious, and the trumpet player said something like, "Naah, there's no song like that." That sealed it; Condon went on to another request.

For a while Rag Mop was everywhere, then it flamed out. I saw the Treniers do it on TV a couple of years later. I think it's the Colgate Comedy Hour with Martin and Lewis, 1951 or '52. Be warned: jive ahead.

It was prophetic that Rag Mop, and not Sentimental Me, became the Ames Brothers' super-hit. (Sentimental Me eventually rose pretty high on the charts, too.) In late '49-early '50, the hits I remember Martin Block playing were Mule Train by Frankie Laine, Ghost Riders in the Sky by Vaughn Monroe, I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts by Freddy Martin (and Merv Griffin), Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think) by Guy Lombardo, A Dreamer's Holiday by Buddy Clark, who had just been killed in a plane crash (I still like both the song and the singer), It Isn't Fair by Don Cornell, With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming by Patti Paige, the Third Man Theme played on the zither by Anton Karas, I Can Dream, Can't I by Patty Andrews. You get the drift. By the end of the 1940s the Top Twenty had become a swing-free zone. Heat-seeking youngsters were craving more excitement from their pop music. The Treniers' Rag Mop on Martin and Lewis in '51-'52 was a glimpse of things to come.

In 1953 I'd be listening to a disc jockey on a Cleveland station I could pick up on my bedside radio, unless there were thunderstorms anywhere between Brooklyn and Cleveland. He called himself the Moondog, and he was playing rhythm and blues. I heard Joe Turner and Ray Charles for the first time on his show from Cleveland. In a year or so, Alan Freed moved to WINS in New York and soon all my friends were listening to him. Big changes were coming.

I still think it's too bad Wild Bill and the Condonites didn't know Rag Mop was just a blues. They could have played the hell out of it.


  1. Mop!

    Funny thing: jazzmen were moppin' and boppin' as far back as 1943 -- mymemory bank calls up Fats, Hawkins, the Lion, Louis, Pete Brown.

    This isn't to snobbishly place Jazz over Mere Pop Music, but to note that all that moppin(g) was going on as a phenomenon within the smaller community before it became a pop hit. No one wrote a tune called GET THE SPONGE, I think.

    And the Condon story suggests that encouraging the audience to say what it would like to hear is always risky. At least Bill was more polite in 1949. When I saw him, twenty years later, a request from the crowd would be greeted by, "Get your own band!"

    Now we can hire people to mop for us. Is that an improvement or not?

  2. Composer credit for Rag Mop goes to Deacon Anderson and Johnnie Lee Wills, younger brother of Bob Wills. According to the folks at
    the composer of the song was none other than our friend Henry "Red" Allen. In fact -- again, according to the website -- Allen's publisher sued Wills. "Although listed as co-composer, Wills acknowledged that he hadn't written a note of it but insisted that his steel guitarist Deacon Anderson had written all of it. Wills & Anderson lost and Red Allen's record [Get the Mop] provides the reason, it's the same song."