by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the early music recording stars in the greater Los Angeles firmament was Abe Lyman, a popular dance band leader, whose career stretched from the early 1920s through the late 1940s and achieved significant local and some national renown. Lyman’s music was definitely grounded on popular styles, but, as was often the case in that genre during the Roaring Twenties, he dressed up the sound with touches lifted from jazz to give his music an occasional “hot” element.
He was born Abraham Simon in Chicago in 1897, the son of Jacob Simon, a Polish Jewish immigrant vegetable peddler turned commission merchant who, during the Great Depression years, was well known for his charitable work in Boyle Heights. There was some musicianship in the family, as a brother, Michael, was an actor and singer, who came to Los Angeles by the end of the 1910s. Abe took up the drums and eventually began working professionally in movie theater orchestras.
Michael, who took the name “Lyman” in his professional work, operated some cafes in his adopted home, including the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica, where the burgeoning film industry’s actors were frequent visitors. He hired his brother, soon known as Abe Lyman, to come west and provide the music when the inn was reopened in 1920, though the celebrities vanished when a scandal involving a famous actor led others to agree to patronize places like the Sunset. Lyman, however, quickly became known as a major talent in the area and the presence of musicians from New Orleans helped give Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra a “hot” jazz-like presence.
The next step was a lengthy residency from 1922-1926 at the famed Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel and a first recording session at Nordskog Records, a pioneering label and studio in Santa Monica previously the subject of a “Striking a Chord” post on this blog. With his fame rising, Lyman was signed to record for Brunswick Records, a major New York label. Sessions were held first in the Big Apple and then Chicago, but the label sent crews out to do recordings in Los Angeles, as well.
Today’s “Striking a Chord” entry highlights a 78-rpm phonograph record from the museum’s collection, recorded by the Lyman band in Los Angeles on this day in 1925 and released by Brunswick.
The A-side is “Mighty Blue,” with music by Richard A. Whiting and lyrics penned by Raymond B. Egan. Whiting wrote such popular tunes as “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” and Shirley Temple’s mega-hit, “On the Good Ship Lollypop” and wrote many film scores for sound movies from 1929 until his death nine years later. Two daughters became popular singers and actresses in the 1940s and 1950s.
Egan wrote the words for “Ain’t We Got Fun” and “The Japanese Sandman,” also with Whiting and many others. He worked actively for many years and died in 1952. “Mighty Blue” was covered later in 1925 by the very popular Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians and by vocalist Aileen Stanley in addition to the Lyman version.
The B-side is “That’s All There Is! (There Ain’t No More!),” by Harry Woods, writer of “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and other well-known chestnuts of the day. One of his biggest successes was “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin’ Along),” a 1926 tune that was a bit hit for Al Jolson and covered by other notables like “Whispering” Jack Smith and Cliff Edwards, known as “Ukulele Ike.” Woods was born without fingers on his left hand, but still mastered the piano. An alcoholic prone to violence, Woods retired in the 1940s and died years later in Arizona.
As for Lyman, he continued to be very popular and in high demand through the 1920s and into the following decade. He worked at other locations in greater Los Angeles, including the popular pavilion at Redondo Beach, and occasionally toured the country, with well-received stints in New York, for example, and one successful tour of France and England in 1929. Lyman and his band also frequently appeared on film, including the “Merrie Melodies” animated series for Warner Brothers. The Lyman group was probably the first musical act to have an official position for a military outfit, serving at Clover Field for an air reserve squadron.
By the mid-1930s, Lyman and his band relocated to New York and, while the Brunswick contract ended, he turned to radio performances. including the well-known “Your Hit Parade” series on CBS. Recording resumed by the end of the decade, but the luster was fading on Lyman’s sound and he left music and turned to the insurance industry and then the restaurant business, again following his brother in that business. Lyman died in Beverly Hills in 1957 at age 59.