Yuba by Billy Jack Long
One of the most beloved popular songs of the early twentieth century and a relatively early “tuba classic” probably would be nothing more than a footnote in a history book about Broadway plays had it not been for one of the early stars of radio. When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba was first heard in a New York revue called The Third Little Show, which debuted on June 1, 1931. A revue is a staged musical performance that has no (or very little) storyline. The songs usually come from a variety of sources. For example, in The Third Little Show, Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a song originally used in his musical play Words and Music, was featured.
The stars of The Third Little Show were Beatrice Lillie, Eddie Arnold, Carl Randall, Ernest Tmex, and Walter F. O’Keefe. It was O’Keefe who sang Yuba. During the late 1920s he acted in three early talking comedy shorts. He was a top-notch singer, pianist, and composer. Perhaps he had other musical talent, but lacking a commanding stage presence, he was not taken seriously. After singing in a few more shows similar to The Third Little Show he spent the remainder of his career arranging, composing, and directing similar shows.
The Third Little Show was a moderate success, closing after 131 performances. In 1931 Broadway shows played on Broadway only – they did not go on the road, and when a show closed, it was over. Some shows closed never to be heard again, however, some of the songs from those shows would “catch on” with the public immediately during the run of a given show while others needed help to come to attention. Radio was a primary “helper.” While Broadway shows could only be viewed in New York, radio could be heard almost anywhere in the 48 states in 1931.
Enter Rudy Vallee. A handsome 30 year old from a small town in Vermont and a graduate of Yale University, he had a weekly variety program on the NBC network, originating form WEAF (later WNBC before its demise in 1985) in New York City. Vallee led a band called The Connecticut Yankees, played the clarinet, doubled on the saxophone, and acted in some of the program’s skits. He was most famous for singing into a little megaphone. Beginning each program with the greeting “Hi-ho everybody,” he made songs such as My Time is Your Time, Collette, and (I’m Just a) Vagabond Lover (his theme song) popular. His cocky attitude made him famous or fondly hated. He introduced several artists who would later become superstars in their own right including Joe Penner, Jack Pearl, Bert Gordon, and Alice Faye. Vallee saw The Third Little Show and loved When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba and recorded it on the RCA Victor label for posterity’s sake. The status of tuba players in 1931 was declining from what had been probably the greatest decade for professional tubists from that time to the present day. Early recording microphones were not sensitive, and string basses could hardly be heard above the ever-present static on early recordings. The recording bass was developed around 1907 to replace the string bass for recording purposes, hence its name. Everything from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was being recorded with tubas. The world was basically still living in the nineteenth century until the First World War – at that point the world became significantly smaller. With the availability of home radios, it became smaller still during the decade following the war. Popular music was being heard on records everywhere.
Every pop music group of the 1920s had a tuba player. The tubist was a member of the rhythm section and commanded the same respect that a fine electric bassist does today. The instrument of choice was often a four-valved sousaphone with silver plating if the player could afford it. By 1926 every major radio station in the United States had its own studio instrumental ensemble, but the bulk of the work for tubists in the 1920s was in “pop” bands.
In 1928 the electronic microphone was developed. Now recordings could be heard as clearly as if the listener were in the studio. Pop music executives desired a less raucous sound. Symphony orchestra recordings could now use the double bass, and this, of course, meant that the tubists days were numbered. (In the jazz/dance band genre, Guy Lombardo’s “Royal Canadians” was one of the few bands that never deviated from its use of the tuba.) Most tubists in “pop” groups became double bass players by 1930, and those who didn’t often just did other work. Although tubists lost work in the recording field, such was not the case in radio. The tuba remained prominent throughout “the Golden Age of Radio” (1926-1948).
The role of the instrument changed somewhat from that of a rhythm instrument to being a member of the brass family. Rudy Vallee’s broadcast introduction of Yuba proved to be a windfall for lyricist/ composer Herman Hupfeld. Riding on its popularity, Hupfeld later (1935) composed the famous ballad As Time Goes By, yet another song introduced on a soon-to-beforgotten Broadway show that was rescued through its performance in the 1942 Warner Brothers film, Casablanca. Yuba made his latest appearance on the 1957 Golden Crest LP recording. Bill Bell and His Tuba. In my early days this recording and a 78 Decca recording by the Victor Young Orchestra of Tubby the Tuba (narrated by Danny Kaye and featuring an uncredited tubist) were all the inspiration 1 needed to pursue the tuba.
Locating the original music for Yuba may be somewhat difficult. The original sheet music, published by Hatms, Inc. in 1931, has long been out of print. It might be found in an antique shop somewhere. (Some collectors do own copies.) There is a tuba solo arrangement of Yuba available from Warner Brothers Music. This version was set in 1931 shortly after Rudy Vallee first sang the song on radio. Vallee’s rendition of the song in its RCA Victor 78 record format might be found somewhere in an antique shop, flea market, or secondhand store. If you find it, we would all like to hear about it!
Incidentally, may years ago in the TUBA Journal there was a short feature on the sheet music for Yuba wherein the author stated that he thought that Yuba was a “bum.” His estimation of Yuba irritated many T.U.B.A. members, this writer included. Please allow me to clear the air on this one! Yuba had probably been quite successful as a “hot tuba player” in the 1920s. He never learned to play the string bass and tried to get passage to Havana, Cuba, then a popular vacation spot for wealthy Americans in the pre-airliner, pre-Castro days of the 1930s. It was a place where he could entertain tourists and make a decent living. He was no bum!
Thanks to Rudy Vallee and William J. Bell, Yuba will remain a part of our tuba heritage for generations to come.