Saturday, June 28, 2008

More About the Fayre Four

Through the article I wrote on the Fayre Four Sisters (posted at, I was fortunate to receive an email from Peter Brown, whose uncle, Sydney, married Tina Webb, the leader/arranger for the great vaudeville concertina group, The Fayre Four Sisters. I'm pleased to post some of Peter's memories here along with a wonderful image--he thinks its the first taken of the full group--from around 1912.
PHOTO: L to r: Sylvia, Inga, Tina, Lillian. Here you see the 2 one-string fiddles that they incorporated in their act.

Here's a part of Peter's email:
This is the 'history' of the group as I recall from talking with Tina & her sisters:

- They first went on the stage in 1912 & were soon a sensation for their beauty & their talent &and the fact that they were 'unusual' being a quartet of 4 young women.

-- they became big stars at the London Palladium & were 'top of the bill' there for many years, I believe into the 1930's.

- the 4 of them went on musical tours throughout the world. The only place that their father forbid them to visit was Russia. He often performed in the Russian State Circus & considered the Country to be 'unsafe' for 4 beautiful spinsters! They were in Vienna when the Russian Revolution took place & told me harrowing stories of meeting bourgeois families fleeing into Europe and exchanging gold, silver & jewellery for food & shelter.

- their musical act involved every sort of concertina, accordions, 2 one-string fiddles & the piano. Their repertoire was mainly popular classical music, but latterly they were involved in big musical shows (Rogers & Hammerstein, Gershuin, etc...) Tina was the one who arranged their music. Lillian looked after their accounts & living expenses,& Inga took charge of bookings & overseas travel, & Sylvia took care of their wardrobe & was responsible for the making of their fabulous costumes.

- Tina was widowed in 1976 (I think!) . Shortly after this Sylvia suffered a stroke whilst on a visit to her, & died in Conwy Hospital. Inga was left alone in the Lambeth house & decided to sell up & move to live with Tina. Tina, Inga & Lillian lived into their 90's. They were indeed secretive about their ages! Inga was the eldest & died well into her 90's.

- Tina's musical ability & memory was extraordinary. Though suffering badly from arthritis in her hands, at 92 she would sit down at the piano & play any of the great piano concertos without any musical score in front of her! Amazing!

- Tina continued to play the piano for the two operatic societies' rehearsals until a dreadful accident when she was 92 yrs old. She was on the stage during a rehearsal, & afterwards, blinded by the footlights, she stepped off the stage onto the steps -- but they had been moved to the other end of the stage. She was lucky not to have been killed, but sustained a bad fracture to one of her ankles. She was a stoic & refused to seek medical attention. I found her in a bad state shortly after & insisted that she went to hospital. She went down-hill rapidly from then and went to live in a rest home where she died after a few months there.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Coming Attractions and Shameless Plugs

My new book, Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways, is coming this fall from Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins. It's the story of Moses Asch (see my entry, "Stereo Is A Lie," below) and how he singlehandedly preserved all the sounds of his time . . . and more. Over the coming months, I'll be posting more about Moe and Folkways Records as well as my relationship with him.

Meanwhile, for my concertina friends near and far, I'll be posting some of my history of the English concertina, along with interviews and photos. This will be squeezed out over the coming months. (Sorry for bad concertina humor, but that's all I got left at this time of day.)

So keep watching this space. I promise to have something new and exciting up soon.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Fred W. McDarrah (1926-2007): Let Us Now Praise Grumpy Men

This webblog is turning into a catalog of the grumpiest but most creative folks on the planet – not exactly my goal when I started out, but I guess I’ve worked with a lot of hard-as-nails types—who all turn out to be secret softies. Or at least so I like to remember them.

Nor was it my intention to write about photographers in particular, since most of the people I’ve known are musicians or writers. But still the recent passing of two of New York’s hardest boiled cameramen—David Gahr this year and previously Fred W. McDarrah—has made me realize how important these difficult, endearing men were to me.

Fred was another one of those crusty New Yorkers who scared away the common folk by yelling at them over the phone. His phone was a heavy, black rotary model – a relic of the ‘50s – but only such a well-made machine could take the abuse of Fred’s righteous indignation. He was always angry about some mistreatment – how his work was undervalued; how he had foolishly settled for a lower fee than he deserved; how you needed to go back to your publisher and beg, borrow, or steal the extra bucks that he needed otherwise he couldn’t possibly keep working with you. The higher he held you in esteem, the more he enjoyed spinning your wheels, and every encounter was a death-match test of your ability to recognize his worth.

A little more panache would have landed Fred a higher standing in the world of journalistic photography. He might have even ended up working for a slick magazine, except the idea of photographing to someone else’s agenda would probably have nauseated him. Fred started out selling ads for the Village Voice when it was still a neighborhood news-sheet; he worked his way up to be Photo Editor, which meant he pretty much covered all the angles—from politics and police work to the wondrous strange world of the Village art scene—while also training (in his abusive-but-loving way) a cadre of younger photographers.

I met Fred through the author John Gruen. I had edited collections of Gruen’s dance and art interviews, and he suggested that I might like to reprint his first book, The New Bohemia, which included an ample selection of Fred’s photographs. Gruen was the polar opposite of Fred; his apartment was a carefully presented stage set, with art nouveau wallpaper and velvety chairs. He had a refined sense of being refined, and liked to name drop the various artistic celebrities whom he had profiled and befriended. Fred was a street tough compared to John’s cloistered intellect, and the two would never have worked together except that Fred was assigned to take photos for an article John wrote for the Herald Tribune, on the new artists of the East Village, which became the basis for the book. Fred’s photos were badly cropped in the original, and he was not given equal billing to Gruen, and all these hard feelings had been festering for decades when I sheepishly called him and asked for permission to reprint his work.

After the ritual yelling that was the beginning of any true friendship with Fred, it took months of delicate negotiation to actually get him to participate in the new edition, and I had to show him along the way that I would respect his work and properly present it. Once I had won his trust, however, Fred was ready to produce dozens of books based on his work, always with the steadying influence of his wife, Gloria, who often also authored the text to go with his pictures.

Fred seemed to soften over the years – or maybe I became more open – and although he still enjoyed arguing – what New Yorker doesn’t? – the arguments became more like banter, less like shock therapy. He could even relax and recall some of those moments that made him the quintessential New York photographer. Once, we were meeting with Art D’Lughoff to negotiate for a signing for one of Fred’s book at Art’s famous Village Gate nightclub. D’Lughoff was sniffing for money to underwrite the event—which I didn’t have—while Fred was vainly trying to get him to provide something for nearly nothing—which Art wasn’t about to do. Nonetheless, there was a certain camaraderie among these veterans of New York’s art scene.

“Remember that time Norman Mailer threw up on you,” Art asked Fred with a big grin.

“Those were the days,” Fred replied, pleased to be associated in any way with Mailer, and the excitement and tumult that defined New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s.