Friday, 23 September 2011

Mayhams Mayhem

Now, you all know how much I love song poems, but there are few people I love more in this shady world that the god-like genius that was Mr Norridge Bryant Mayhams. In a career which spanned from the late 30s until his death in 1988 Mayhams – usually under his nom de plume Norris the Troubadour - authored a body of work that Phil Milstein of the American Song-Poem Music Archives rightly calls: “staggering in its scope, quality and general strangeness, with a fast-and-loose approach to crediting his work that confounds discographical comprehension.”

It’s a long and complicated career. Norridge began playing in coffee shops and on the college circuit; he worked with Chick Webb and even Gypsy Rose Lee and he went on to cut a handful of 78s – a curious mix of originals, covers, religious pap and bawdy blues – with his group the Blue Chips for a number of different outfits including Melotone, Decca and Oriole. He even authored a booklet – Experiences of a Collegiate Singer, in 1947 (reissued in 1973). During his recording sessions Norridge would usually sing lead, but the man had no shame, often roping in his rapidly expanding family to help out on backing vocals and occasionally co-authoring songs with his daughter Betty. It was this paring that gave Norridge Mayhams his first and lone bone fide hit: We’ll Build a Bungalow, later recorded by a number of artists including Johnny Long, who had a top 30 hit with the song in 1950 and even Lucille Ball – who sang the song along with then-husband Desi Arnaz on their hit TV show I Love Lucy in 1952.

The Success of We’ll Build a Bungalow inspired Norridge to form his own label Co-Ed Records. And it’s here that his troubles started.  First he got stiffed for the royalties on his hit (it took him until 1978 to finally sort this issue out) and then he was forced to abandon Co-Ed when another company of the same name sued. But he never gave up, forming a new label, Mayhams (later Mayhams Collegiate), a publishing company Sorority Fraternity and, realising perhaps that his own singing style was out of step with what the kids wanted in the 60s and 70s, employing a number of song-poem outfits to either re-record his old material or perform new compositions

Cataloguing Norridge’s recordings is a nightmare: he used the names Norridge and Norris interchangeably, and the names of other family members including wife Shirley, daughter Betty and the name Smalls - his wife's maiden name thinks Milstein – pepper his writing credits. The same songs turn up time and time again, sometimes re-recorded, often not, with slight variations in title. More than this employing a simple alpha-numeric numbering system was beyond him and his command of English language is random to say the least, dropping and adding apostrophes willy-nilly, misspelling words like ‘potatoe’ and even miscrediting himself on his own records. Just when you think you’ve found everything another odd variant turns up: at least five different discs exist which all use the catalogue number Mayhams 1958, for example.

I could pull out almost anything from Norridge Bryant Mayhams’ bizarre, bewildering and brilliant catalogue; it’s all good. But today I’m going to give you one of my all-time favourites - a song which, unsurprisingly, he recorded on at least two occasions and at least 20 years apart: Mary Ann McCarthy. A traditional song more often sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body, Norridge decided to update the lyrics and provide it with a wonderfully peculiar backing all of its own, complete with fuzz guitar, odd keyboard effects and a vocalist (not Norridge on this occasion, although he did perform the earlier version on Co-Ed) who struggles to keep up with Norridge’s tongue-twisting words.



  1. I love how the arrangement starts off with the funky "70's style fuzz guitar" before it veers off into utter *cheese* land once the "singing" begins!

  2. Thank you for your article about Mr. Mayhams. I think it is the only information on the web on the gentleman. I am interested in his as he recorded in 1936 “Ace in the Hole, the 1909 song by James Dempsey and George Mitchell. The song was also recorded in in 1936 by Chick Bullock (any relation of yours?). As far as I can tell these were the first recordings ever of this 1909 song. I learned the song from my grandfather before he died.
    I am curious if you know which of these recording came first, and if there was any connection between Mr. Mayhams and Mr. Bullock or their recordings, especially as they both released 78s on Melotone.
    Any info you can share with me would be appreciated. And thanks again…

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