Al Bernard was a great historic recording artist from the vaudeville era. He was also one of the most famous blackface performers from the days of the minstrel shows, so he's become something of a pariah. Yet his work has also been reappraised by music historians who feel links exist between the much-maligned minstrel show styles and much-adored western swing music. Known as "the boy from Dixie" in much of his promotion, Bernard's biggest hit was the clutchy "I Want to Hold You in My Arms," one of many duets with Ernest Hare that were released on Edison as so-called "diamond discs." His collaborations with Hare included what passed for male and female duets, except it was Bernard doing the woman's voice. Having come up on the vaudeville boards, he'd learned to do just about anything for a laugh. The 1922 "My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle," for example, is a typical Bernard song title.
The label credit for one of his vintage recordings of W.C. Handy songs was "Al Bernard, Singing Comedian and Hot Orchestra," the measures of comedy and music based on the context of the song and what band he was singing in front of. The white Original Dixieland Jazz Band were one of his employers in the early days. This group billed itself as having invented jazz, the claim based on the record "Livery Stable Blues" combined with "Dixie Jass Band One Step," which as of early 1917, was supposedly the first jazz record ever released. The band had already gone through decades of critical backlash as a result of the boast and a somewhat bogus attitude when, like Bernard, new judgments began to be handed down indicating the presence of charm, if not innovation. If Bernard's work is ever considered in the latter category, it would have to be because of his influence on western swing, not New Orleans jazz. The 1930 record "Hesitation Blues," cut by Bernard with backing from a band that dares to call itself the Goofus Five, is considered to predict the western swing style with its "white guys playing on strings" philosophy. The record is an intriguing combination of country & western and Chicago blues feels, the sort of cultural exchange that happened naturally, the traveling minstrel shows spreading musical styles back and forth, handing off the traditional music of south and the Tin Pan Alley songs of the big eastern cities.
Bernard was also an active composer throughout his career, most of the time working with co-writers and sometimes publishing his work under the pseudonym of John Bennett. One of his best songs, "Brother Lowdown," a portrait of an eccentric street preacher, wound up getting credited to Turk Murphy. He fared much better in most of his dealings on the New York music publishing scene, hooking up with outfits such as Triangle and producer, songwriter, and publisher Joe Davis, who even provided Bernard with opportunities to record during the early rock & roll era, a time when vaudeville and minstrel show popularity was at an all-time low, along with everything else that didn't rock. Bernard's lyrics through the years provide a ready explanation for why this type of material is still despised by some, even if it pales in comparison with rap lyrics. "I Ain't Afraid of Nuthin' Dat's Alive" was classified as a "character coon song" and included the classic line "I love to play with razors." Some of Bernard's last and least objectionable recordings were done in the mid-'40s, originally released on a double 78 Celebrity set under the name of Al Bernard's Merry Minstrel Show, but actually featuring a combination of two different bands, the Hometown Minstrel Band and the Sunflower Quartet. A younger bassist with the same name is sometimes confused with the old minstrel man, and it is no wonder -- they both come from New Orleans, and they both recorded with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, although the bassist obviously joined the long-running band much later on. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi