Burn Before Listening - The Rejected Recordings of Benny Court & Benny Taylor
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Benny Court and Benny Taylor were two Britons who made their way over to the US sometime in the 1920s, for a stab at the big time. It would seem they fell on hard times which only became exacerbated by the Great Depression.
Mac Schlinger was an American Jew looking to establish himself in the budding cartoon industry during the 30s, by this time both Disney and Fleischer were hugely popular. Schlinger was in partnership with his brother Hank, who was the artist of the two, and they had a very small team of animators, three in total, including Hank, the other two being Len Martin and Stan Kyle. Mac set up Schlinger studios in 1936 on a shoestring budget, his plan was to film a series of shorts featuring his animated star Ritzy Rat, (an obvious rival to Mickey Mouse albeit more streetwise, dressed in a zoot suit and often smoking a cigarette) with which he could approach one of the larger studios (Paramount etc...) in a bid to secure a contract to produce an ongoing series. Mac's base was in an old abandoned warehouse somewhere in New York's East Village. Mac had spent most of the studio's money (an inheritance) on equipment, film, and wages, so he was looking at a way of bringing in a composer/musicians without breaking the bank. By this time the rival studios were producing high quality synchronised soundtracks for their cartoons, and he knew he couldn't compete, so he decided the only affordable method was to bring in musicians to perform a live soundtrack accompaniment, much in the vain of organists in the silent film era.
Rumour has it that it was after a heavy evening drinking session at McSorley's that Mac first stumbled across Court and Taylor, busking on a pavement, he allegedly described them as “two bums having some kind of mutual fit, which happened to include instruments”. By this stage the two Bennys were believed to be sleeping on the streets and spending any money they'd collected on alcohol (This was two years after the end of prohibition). Mac was somehow impressed by the frantic nature of the two (and possibly worse for wear himself) that he approached them and asked if they'd be interested in auditioning at his studios for a job in the movies. Although we don't know the exact details it's clear that Court and Taylor accepted his offer and even spent the night at the Schlinger warehouse.
The recordings that we have are from that first session, although, as can be heard on the recording itself (there must have been almost a hundred takes in all), only five survive, so we must surmise that these were the five that were deemed the 'best'. The voice you hear between takes is believed to be that of Mac Schlinger, and it is clear that he soon realises he's made an error of judgement in hiring Court and Taylor, as demonstrated by his use of expletives. We my never know what state the two musicians were in, but we can guess by the sounds they produce. Mac's brother Hank has even gone on record to say that Taylor referred to himself as a violinist, although it is evident from the range of the instrument on the recording that it is in fact a viola. The percussive sounds you can hear on track are believed to be pots and pans, whether these were provided by Schlinger or belonged to the Bennys, we can only guess.
Sadly, Schlinger Studios went bust before any of the shorts were completed, the original animated reels somehow mislaid or destroyed with only a series of sketches remaining. Mac returned to the family business, selling bonds in Connecticut, while Hank went to work for a rival studio. We have no record of what happened to Len, but Stan found his way onto the circus circuit, producing large promotional posters for some of the most popular travelling troupes of the time. Stan it seems had a soft spot for Court and Taylor, and forged a close friendship with the pair, it is this connection that leads the two Bennys to their next brush with fame, after almost 19 years on the skids.
By the 50s the pair were recognisable faces in and around the of the East Village, just about scraping by on hand-outs and the occasional bar residency. Then in 1956 Stan offered them a contract to record a kids' album he'd been planning for general release in partnership with a record producer from Philadelphia called Sam Saint. The recording was part of a bid to reignite the popularity of the nation's travelling circuses and their clown stars, which had been hit badly during the great depression and the subsequent Hartford Circus fire incident in 1944. The album was to be called 'The Nation's Favorite Clowns!' and would include a set of collectable cards, each one featuring the face of one of America's most famous clowns. The Bennys job was to provide an audio clip for each clown; a musical portrait, if you will. Stan must have known this was a gamble, Court in particular had a habit of spewing tourettes' like expletives, but maybe the sheer manic energy was what he was after. On the face of it, he was most probably a charitable soul who wanted to help out a couple of 'down on their luck' buddies.
There are various stories about this session, but I'll stick to the account by Stan himself. Taylor and Court turned up at least three hours late to Saint Studios in Philly, despite being holed up in a local hotel overnight, two hundred yards from the studio. Stan had gone to fetch them the morning of the session but found they had not even spent the night there. When they finally arrived, it was on the back of a milk cart, Taylor was wearing some sort of sailor's costume and Court was in a pair of plus-fours. It was obvious they had been drinking heavily, but this was par for the course in Stan's mind, and the session took place regardless.
The version we have is what might be classed as 'the directors cut', it is a remastering of Stan's vinyl copy, the only one actually known to exist (although there is some dispute over whether Saint has one). This version was not going to be the final cut, which becomes obvious when listening to the takes for Ringling, Irvin Romig, and Screwy the Clown; definitely not safe for children's ears, even in 1956. The rest of the album is actually quite charming, if a little odd.
Unfortunately this venture was also a flash in the pan, with Stan unable to secure distribution or indeed any industry interest, it was tossed on the back-burner. Sadly, interest in the circus industry continued to decline, and suffice to say, the Bennys once again found themselves busking in the East Village.
Despite their bad run of luck, they had gained a bit of a reputation locally, which was in part due to a local newspaper in 1957 running an op-ed on the pair, recounting both their exploits with Schlinger and Kyle, and how they'd become a regular fixture on the streets' sidewalks, and local bars . This led local promoter Teddy Maine to organise a gig for the two at the local Soup Kitchen, a recently converted performance hall that just over two decades earlier had indeed been a soup kitchen in the Great Depression. Hoping to make some money from the venture, Maine even recorded the set, in the hope he could sell the recordings, to whom, is anyone's guess.
The recordings we have are the only three surviving from that gig, whether there are more is disputable, it would seem ridiculous for a concert to only last 5 minutes, but bearing in mind the pairs' track record, anything is possible.
(We'd like to thank Stan Kyle for his invaluable contributions, hospitality and invaluable anecdotes, without which this project would not exist).
Three of Stan Kyle's early sketches of Ritzy Rat, circa 1936