2 March 2015

Post 177: 'CHICKEN AIN'T NOTHIN' BUT A BIRD'


Chicken Ain't Nothin' But a Bird? It's a simple, romping 32-bar a - a - b - a tune.

You can find some enjoyable examples of this song on YouTube.

A source who is normally reliable gave me the information that this song was composed in 1899 by Bob Cole and J. R. Johnson. (They wrote the famous jazz number Under The Bamboo Tree.) However, I was unable to find any evidence to substantiate the theory that they wrote Chicken Ain't Nothin' But a Bird. Then reader Stan Cummins discovered that there was a 'chicken' song that Bob Cole performed at about that time, but it was a different song, so that must have caused the confusion.

A more convincing source said the song was composed by Emmett 'Babe' Wallace (born in Brooklyn, 1909; died 2006). He was a singer, a composer, an actor and a writer. I think he was the composer and that he must have written the song in about 1939, in time for such performers as Cab Calloway (1940) to make a feature of it. This information has since been confirmed for me by an email from Jimy Bleu (see below) who tells me he is Mr. Wallace's grandson.

The song appears to go something like this.

Long after writing the above, I received this information in an email:
My name is Jimy Bleu & I'm writing to give you some information about my grandfather Emett 'Babe' Wallace who is indeed the writer of "Chicken Ain't Nothing But A Bird" (I still receive royalties on his composition) as well as standards he wrote for Benny Goodman, Kenny Durham, Django Reinhard & many others. He actually wrote "Chicken" for Ella Fitzerald whom he was dating at the time, but she was under contract to record other material, so Cab Calloway picked it up from him. In the mid '90's Burger King licensed the Cab Calloway version for their chicken sandwich campaign in which Babe received a very large amount for the use of the tune........Ella did record a few of his tunes eventually, one of them "Old Mother Hubbard" becoming a relative hit, especially when it was picked up to be used in a 'Betty Boop' cartoon.
I am actually in post-production on a documentary about him. He was a gifted singer, pianist, guitarist, composer/arranger & actor who just happened to be sort of like the character "Forrest Gump", a person who can be seen in various photographs or movies with major stars. Below are the links. However, what the writer of the blog leaves out about Babe fronting Ella's band was that they were dating. Ella was only around 18 (?) & didn't know anything about fronting & maintaining a band, so Babe took the band over for a time when Chick Webb died & left her the band in his will. I attached a photo of him with Ella as well as stills from the classic movie "Stormy Weather" he starred in. I also attached a picture of him & I about a year before he died at the age of 96.
What happened with "Stormy Weather" is that Babe was the leading man to Lena Horne. A few months before the film's wrap, the studio heads decided to cast Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as the leading man to have another top name (Lena wasn't yet well-known) & they put Babe as the 2nd lead. Bill was then in his mid '60's & they dyed his grey hair black. Babe was 34, Lena 26. The positive note about the whole incident is that Babe renewed his friendship with Harold Nicholas ('The Nicholas Brothers') & they would often go double-dating with the Dandridge sisters (Dorothy whom Harold eventually married & Vivian whom Babe has a son with)..................7 years before "Stormy Weather", Babe was given the lead with Nina Mae McKinney in a Black film classic called "Sugar Hill" (also known as "The Black Network") with Harold. I attached a pic collage of him in that film. They remained close friends until Harold's death. I took Babe to Harold's memorial here in NYC & before the memorial when Harold's wife saw Babe standing in the back, they stood up & made the usher go get him to sit up front with them.