He’s Not a Greenhorn, He Blows a Mean Horn

My posts on music tend not to get much response, possibly because a lot of them discuss something that either everybody else knows about already or something so obscure that hardly anyone knows about it. That said, I’m still making another one. The CD release of the Bonzo Dog Band‘s album Keynsham includes Roger Ruskin Spear’s version of “When Yuba Plays the Rumba Down in Cuba,” a song so catchy that it often comes into my head when I’m bored at work or something. I decided to look up the song the other day, and while it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, it didn’t take that much searching to find out that it was written by one Herman Hupfeld. While not exactly a household name, he did write “As Time Goes By.” In fact, he did so in 1931, the same year he composed “Yuba.” I believe “Yuba” was first performed by Rudy Vallee, not to be confused with Frankie Valli.

Actually, Rudy’s real name was Hubert Vallee, but he renamed himself after then-famous saxophone player Rudy Widoeft. Vallee is known as one of the first crooners. Early recording artists tended to sing as loudly as possible so they could be heard at all, yet still sounded reedy on the records.

Vallee had a much softer style that went over well on the radio, originally using a megaphone for amplification.

By all accounts, he was a pretty clean-cut Ivy League guy, but also one of the earliest pop idols, with the ladies finding his voice quite sexy. They probably weren’t thinking of “Yuba” when they decided this, but I have a long-standing interest in novelty music. It’s weird that Vallee seems to have hints of a British accent on this song (“he plays the rumber on the tuber”) even though he’s from Vermont. The song was featured in a 1933 Fleischer cartoon with vocals by the Mills Brothers, but I can’t find it online. Actually, there’s a video on YouTube that claims to be it, but the music is totally wrong. And in the cartoon Long-Haired Hare, Bugs Bunny plays a little bit of it on the tuba.

I have to suspect the line “every peanut vendor’s jealous of his oompa-oompa-oompa” might refer to the song “The Peanut Vendor” or “El Manisero,” the first Cuban song to be a big hit in the United States. Often referred to in the States as a rumba, it was actually a pregon, based on the cries of street vendors. While frequently performed as an instrumental, it does have lyrics in both Spanish and English. According to Wikipedia, it’s been recorded more than 160 times, and sold over a million copies in sheet music before that. My wife first introduced me to this song performed by Perez Prado:

And here’s a 1930 recording by the Havana Casino Orchestra, with Spanish lyrics intact:

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