The Mystery of Harpsichord Tommy

HarpTomCornball Bailey Trio
Gateway and Big 4 Hits were labels run out of Cincinnati by Carl Burkhardt of Queen City Records — later Rite — from 1952 to 1958. Low-cost alternatives to major label hit singles, these labels were apparently the first of their kind, preceding Enoch Light’s Waldorf Music Hall label by a year or two. Among the first Gateways I collected when I was about nine or ten was “The Crazy Otto Medley,” credited to Piano Roll Thompson, a remake of Johnny Maddox’ hit on Dot which was itself a remake of a hit record from Germany by Franz-Schulz Reichel. The Cincinnati “Crazy Otto” was especially notable for its echt-obnoxious laughter, and I regrettably no longer have that copy. But as this was a Gateway that sold pretty well I hope to see it again someday.

In 1988 I found — as part of a cache of 78s bought from a Salvation Army Thrift Store on Pike St. in Covington — an odd Ci-Sum (“spell it backwards”) disc bearing a version of 12th Street Rag credited to Harpsichord Tommy. It was a very eccentric performance, kind of all over the place, with short bars and other features that made it distinctive and exciting. While I loved it, I wasn’t especially curious about it, and now I wish I had been, because in 1988 there were still people around that could have told me who Harpsichord Tommy was. I also failed to connect Harpsichord Tommy with Piano Roll Thompson, though I can forgive myself for that; by that time, I hadn’t heard the Gateway “Crazy Otto” in years, and I didn’t know of any relationship between Ci-Sum and the Burkhardt labels. Ci-sum was based out of the Wurlitzer Building in Cincinnati and had their records pressed by Queen City Records.

I was still missing some key pieces of the puzzle in 1988. These would emerge towards the end of 2011 in a thrift store in Lebanon, Ohio, though it would take me more than a year to actually sit down and listen to the discs. Invited to deliver a short talk on the Burkhardt labels at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, I decided to go through all of the Big 4s and Gateways I had. Among these were Big 4 Hits 106, as listed below, and Gateways 152-154. Despite the variance in names — “Piano Willie,” “Piano Roll Thompson” and “Cornball Bailey” — these are all of the same player; moreover, it is also the same player as “Harpsichord Tommy” on the Ci-Sum. The discography below — which may be incomplete, though it is no so for what appeared on the Burkhardt labels — seems like a lot, but in most cases these discs had two selections per side, lasting right around two minutes. In effect this is equivalent to 16 78 rpm sides, albeit including many long ones.

Matrices shown only refer to the plate from which the 78 side was pressed; I have added the “-1” and “-2” numbers. These are not take numbers but simply refer to the position of the first or second track on a side of a 4-track EP. Burkhardt did not record direct-to-disc but, starting in 1952, directly to tape, which he then edited into the Big 4 sides. So “matrices” on discs do not necessarily reflect recording order or session order, just production order.

Harpsichord Tommy Cincinnati, 1954

12th Street Rag Ci-Sum unnumbered

Piano Willie Cincinnati, 1954

8532-1 Sheik of Araby Big 4 Hits 104-A
8532-2 In My Adobe Hacienda Big 4 Hits 104-A
8533-1 Bombastic Boogie Big 4 Hits 104-B
8533-2 Charmaine Big 4 Hits 104-B
8534-1 Frankie and Johnnie Big 4 Hits 105-A
8534-2 Three Little Indians Big 4 Hits 105-A
8535-1 Show Me the Way to Go Home Big 4 Hits 105-B
8535-2 Piano Roll Blues Big 4 Hits 105-B
8536-1 La Paloma Big 4 Hits 106-A
8536-2 Coquette Big 4 Hits 106-A
8537-1 Love Letters in the Sand Big 4 Hits 106-B
8537-2 Way Down Yonder in New Orleans Big 4 Hits 106-B
8538-1 Chicago Big 4 Hits 107-A
8538-2 Ukelele Baby Big 4 Hits 107-A
8539-1 Marcheta Big 4 Hits 107-B
8539-2 Sweetheart (from Maytime) Big 4 Hits 107-B

Piano Roll Thompson Cincinnati, 1955

8615 The Crazy Otto Medley Gateway 1111-B

8726-1 Pagan Love Song Big 4 Hits 152-A, Gateway EP 152-A
8726-2 Riding High Big 4 Hits 152-A, Gateway EP 152-A
8727-1 12th Street Rag Big 4 Hits 152-B, Gateway EP 152-B
8727-2 Homesick Blues Big 4 Hits 152-B, Gateway EP 152-B

Cornball Bailey Trio Cincinnati, 1955

8728-1 Jersey Bounce Big 4 Hits 153-A, Gateway EP 153-A
8728-2 Tuxedo Junction Big 4 Hits 153-A, Gateway EP 153-A
8729-1 Honky Tonk Boogie Big 4 Hits 153-B, Gateway EP 153-B
8729-2 Drigo Serenade Big 4 Hits 153-B, Gateway EP 153-B
8730-1 Blue Danube Big 4 Hits 154-A, Gateway EP 154-A
8730-2 Sorrento Big 4 Hits 154-A, Gateway EP 154-A
8731-1 Villia Big 4 Hits 154-B, Gateway EP 154-B
8731-2 Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair Big 4 Hits 154-B, Gateway EP 154-B

8732-8737 are credited to the Elbert Wiggins Trio, and while Wiggins is a pianist, he plays in a Western Swing oriented style reminiscent of Moon Mullican, and is not the same artist as those shown above.

These discs were designed to ride upon the coattails of the honky tonk piano craze of the 1950s, spearheaded by pianists like Maddox and Lou Busch, who recorded as “Joe ‘Fingers’ Carr.” No doubt the false names reflect the influence of “Carr,” and this marketing model was seen elsewhere in recordings by “Knuckles O’Toole” (Dick Hyman) or “Eddie ‘Piano’ Miller” (Ed Lisbona). Despite its cachet as a quaint antique, some aspects of the Honky Tonk piano craze did contribute to the emergence of rock n’ roll and it definitely helped to spur on a resurgence of interest in the tradition of ragtime that would explode, in a far more respectable sense, in the early 1970s. Nothing that Harpsichord Tommy did reflects the ragtime roots of honky tonk; indeed, in some selections he employs a right-hand, “shake” figure imitative of a player piano that becomes something of a burden through overuse. However, his left-hand figures are fascinating; although Harpsichord Tommy is grounded in barrelhouse and reflects the popular style of boogie woogie as practiced in the 1940s, his left hand is seldom repetitive and seems on a constant search for new ground to dig up, though it is intuitive also, much like Turner Parrish on his Gennett recordings of the early 1930s. When I played these discs at the Public Library, one response was that he sounds a little reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow, only as heard done by a live player rather than a player piano. As Nancarrow was based in Cincinnati from 1929 to 1932 and a student at the Cincinnati Conservatory, it is tempting to consider the possibility that Harpsichord Tommy was someone who had contact with Nancarrow; certainly they share a preference for short bars and impatient development strategies. I should clarify that at this point there is no evidence to support such an idea. It is hard to even speculate as to the age of Harpsichord Tommy; while his power and desire to cut to the chase suggests the impetousness of youth, the automatic, ‘just playing — not thinking’ approach likewise suggests experience, as do some of the selections, drawn from by then rather arcane light classical pops of the 1920s.

However, perhaps the most intriguing mystery about Harpsichord Tommy is his choice of instrument; no one I have shared these tracks with can seem to figure out what it is. Although he does play a standard upright on tracks like “Honky Tonk Boogie” most often he employs an instrument, possibly electronic, that sounds like a cross between a harpsichord and an upright. It does not appear to have had a full 88 keys and has a distorted quality reminiscent of tube amplification. Wurlitzer introduced its Model 100 electric piano the very year that Harpsichord Tommy began recording, but that is a mellower kind of bell-like sound; it is the instrument that Ray Charles employs on his 1959 recording of “What’d I Say.” Baldwin built a space-age instrument, the Electric Combo Harpsichord, that was much loved of the Beach Boys and Beatles; it had a plexiglas lid and looked like something out of The Jetsons. But it did not roll out until 1965. Perhaps Harpsichord Tommy had access to a prototype of the Baldwin instrument, or played an actual harpsichord and the tubes we are hearing simply results from the excessively “hot” way that Burkhardt recorded things. Harpsichords were in short supply in 1954; there were museum instruments, not all of which were playable and they were seldom seen outside of the museum. You could have one built, but it would cost a pretty penny; it is not like now where you have builders who specialize in making modern copies of harpsichords, though the French company of Pleyel et Cie. were manufacturing them — with heavy metal frames, like a piano — beginning in the 1930s. These were very quiet instruments that recorded loudly; witness Wanda Landowska’s famous 1954 recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations where the harpsichord fairly jumps out of your speakers. But I heard one of these metal frame instruments, in person, at a concert at the Taft Museum in about 1970, and I recall straining to hear it even though it was only about ten feet from me. In any event, Harpsichord Tommy’s instrument doesn’t sound like an old, metal frame harpsichord, and it is still a mystery.

Nevertheless, it is a mystery that I’m looking into, and I’ll get back to you on that if there are any developments. In the meantime, please enjoy the samples provided below of this strange and fascinating Cincinnati artist. Uncle Dave Lewis

Piano Roll Thompson — Riding High

Piano Willie — La Paloma

Cornball Bailey Trio — Honky Tonk Boogie

10 thoughts on “The Mystery of Harpsichord Tommy

  1. Thanks for posting this history of Gateway and Big 4.
    Perhaps he plays a Novachord, the first commercially-available polyphonic electronic synthesizer? Hammond built these between 1939-42, and as Wikipedia says,”The resulting sonic palette ranged from dense sustained string-like and vocal-like timbres to the sharp attack transients of a harpsichord or piano.” best Wishes, Mark

    1. Thank you Mark — that is an excellent suggestion! I had some Novachord records made by RCA Victor during the recording ban, as that was not recognized as an instrument by the AFM — harmonica players did well during that time frame also! Alas, those got away from me before I really got a chance to hear them. But I do have some Joe Venuti records made at Tempo where he uses a Novachord. So I will give those a listen with fresh ears. — UD

  2. Thank you for posting on this (and for announcing your post on the ARSC listserv)! I have the Harpsichord Tommy record and have been curious about it for awhile–who he was, whether he had any other recordings, etc–and I’m glad to know more about it.

    To me, HT’s instrument sounds like a thumbtack piano, which a number of people used during the 1950s and sometimes called a “harpsi-piano.” Dick Hyman uses one on his 1958 album “Hi Fi at the Harpsichord” and the liner notes say its “a grand piano, the hammers of which are metallic at the point of contact with the strings.” I’d be curious whether you hear that same timbre on any of the Gateway or Big 4 records?

    Anyway, thanks for the fascinating post!

  3. Uncle Dave posted to arsclist::”And as to the notion that the WMH discs were ONLY carried in Woolworth’s
    stores I did have questions about that. They are so widespread you would
    think there would have been another avenue through which they could be
    acquired, even though I don’t recall seeing any of them in the field west
    of the Mississippi.”

    FYI,I have turned up many of the Waldorf 78’s and a few of the 10 inch LPs In the San Francisco Bay Area.–Mark

  4. Excellent post Dave. Very informative! Always appreciate hearing more about the mysteries of historically musical Cincy.

  5. I finally located my Ci-Sum disc of Harpsichord Tommy, and have posted the label image up top of this post. I erred in the main article when I said that it was a Burkhart pressing, but not by much, as it is a Shaw pressing. Burkhart absorbed Shaw in about 1956 or possibly later. My guess to the date, however, was pretty right; the Shaw job number is “120,” which puts it in either 1954 or late 1953.

  6. I think I might have the solution to the mystery of Tommy’s instrument, and I am surprised I didn’t think of this before, especially as I am a former owner of Earl Hines’ Bluebird 78 “Child of a Disordered Brain” played on a Storytone piano. The Storytone was a joint venture between RCA and Story and Clark and was an electric instrument. Perhaps Tommy’s Storytone was in a bad state of repair, rendering its tone buzzy and additionally amplified.

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