I’m always curious about how songs evolve, and I guess there’s no better documentation of that than by listening to recordings. Take Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” which most of us consider a country music standard. Recorded by Hank in December of 1948, it had been a country song when cowboy crooner Rex Griffin recorded it in September of 1938. However, when medicine show blackface songster Emmett Miller recorded it back in June of 1928, he used backup by his Georgia Crackers, which included jazzmen Leo McConville on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, Eddie Lang on guitar, Arthur Schutt on piano, and Stan King on drums. This was a jazz-blues-minstrel hybrid that was anything but country.
It was obvious that both Hank and Rex had heard Emmett Miller’s recording. There are enough similarities in the way the song is sung to make that absolutely certain. The same blue yodels are in the same place So, where did Emmett Miller get the song? The answer is in a fourth recording made in 1922 by vaudeville song-and-dance man Jack Shea. All the words are there but the tune is a bit different and there is an additional verse about going to the doctor:
He looked at me and said, “Why, your final lowka towka is badly bent”… you’ve got the lovesick blues.
The record by Jack Shea lists Cliff Friend as single author of the song. All the later versions list Irving Mills and Cliff Friend as authors. Irving Mills was a very successful arranger, agent, friend, and sometimes singer with bands like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Don Redmon, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and his own Hotsy Totsy Boys (a.k.a. Mills Musical Clowns and Mills Merry Makers). My guess is that he got the musicians together to back up Emmett Miller and, as a result, took a piece of the action on his songs. “Lovesick Blues” made him a good piece of change over the years. As for Cliff Friend, who was a prolific songwriter from the early ’20s into the ’50s, with songs like “June Night,” “Then I’ll Be Happy,” “Wah Hoo,” “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” and a list a mile long that appeared in such Broadway shows and movies as George White’s Scandals, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, Many Happy Returns, and Shine on Harvest Moon. Cliff Friend had a lot on his plate. He probably didn’t miss half the royalties on one of his first songs. After Hank did the song, it was done by about everyone in country music. Sonny James brought it back to the country charts in 1957 and Floyd Cramer charted with an instrumental in 1962. The British crooner Franklfield charted with it in 1963. For an old 1922 vaudeville tune, “Lovesick Blues” has had a pretty good run. Now someone needs to bring that early verse about the trip to the doctor. I’d be glad to give it to them.
Reprinted from the March 2004 issue of the San Diego Troubadour