Stop That Dancing Up There!

I first heard Harry “The Hipster” Gibson on a Stash records anthology of drug songs, performing “Who Put the Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine” — and my initial reaction was that it had to be a put-on because no one could have been singing something like that in 1947.

I was wrong, of course, but that got me interested, so when an

oldies label issued a full LP of his early work I snapped it up. Thus I discovered “Handsome Harry the Hipster,” “4-F Ferdinand, the Frantic Freak,” “Who’s Goin’ Steady With Who?” and this masterpiece, which soon became a highlight of my repertoire.

I’m pretty sure I started doing this solo, as a shout-along, which is like a sing-along but requires no singing — I just encourage the audience to shout along with the title line. I found it was easier to get compliance with shout-alongs, or at least with this one, and it always worked well in the bars. Then, when I hooked up with Robbie Phillips, Peter Keane, and Mark Earley as the Street Corner Cowboys, I found it worked as a band number, and when I recorded a cassette in the mid-1990s Mark played a nice harmonica break, which he replicated onstage at the release party at Passim Coffeehouse (in photo).

As for Harry the Hipster… a brief self-penned memoir tells his story. A blond Jewish piano prodigy from the Bronx, he started hanging out in Harlem, picked up the current jazz styles, and was promoted as a white teenage protege of Fats Waller, whom he had never met. Then, as he recalled, one night he was playing his usual gig and…

A big guy came over, put five dollars in the kitty and asked for “Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” I could almost play that tune, note for note, like the Waller recording. The big man laughed and asked how I learned to play that way. I went into the high jive about how I was Fats’ star pupil. The guy just about broke up, stuck out his hand and said, “Sonny, say hello to your old professor, Thomas Waller.”

Waller booked young Harry Raab as an extra at the Yacht Club on 52nd Street, the main drag for small-band jazz, and over the next few years he changed his name to Gibson and became a local institution. The Hipster played with everybody from Charlie Parker to Mae West, co-leased a nightclub with Lord Buckley, and in 1944 Musicraft Records — a classical label that had pioneered the idea of selling folk-blues albums to the New York intelligentsia with Leadbelly and Josh White releases — signed him as their first jazz artist. That was still a novel idea, since jazz was considered jukebox pop music and sold almost exclusively on singles.

As Gibson recalled, the Musicraft guys saw him at the Three Deuces playing a substitute set for Billie Holiday and asked if he could record the next morning. Ben Webster was the other act on the bill, so he asked Webster’s rhythm section — Sid Catlett on drums and John Simmons on bass — if they could make the gig. They said sure, and that was that. The only problem was that Musicraft wanted eight original compositions to fill a four-disc album, and he only had seven… so they rehearsed the seven, and then:

While the drummer and bassman went out to the all-night eatery, I came up with “Stop That Dancing Up There.” I had it finished by the time John and Sid came back from breakfast; it turned out to be the hit of the album.

Gibson had a long and varied career, albeit with some gaps due to substances and so forth, and was still working in the 1980s with a blues/rock combo, still writing, still doing his hipster schtick. Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time… I would have loved to have caught his show, met him, heard more stories.

There are a few videos on Youtube from his first heyday, which convey some sense of his oddball appeal. They don’t include one I saw someplace that included a “stop chorus” of silly facial expressions, but this is a pretty fair taste: