Earl Fuller (1885-1947) was a pioneering American ragtime and early jazz bandleader, composer and instrumentalist. Fuller helped to initiate the popularity of jazz in New York City shortly before America's entry into World War I. He also had an ear for talent, and discovered Ted Lewis and Teddy Brown.
Earl Fuller was born Earl Bunn Fuller on March 7, 1885 in Stonington, Illinois however his family had longstanding ties to Warren County, Ohio. Practically nothing is known of his musical education, but he was proficient on several instruments; photos of his jazz band show him seated at the piano, whereas he also is credited with playing trumpet and trombone in his Novelty Orchestra; other accounts identify him as a drummer. Fuller was hired, in 1913, as musical director of Rector's Restaurant on Broadway in Manhattan's theater district; since about 1912 it was already established as a place where famous personalities from the New York Stage rubbed shoulders with politicians and other prominent New Yorkers. Fuller's Novelty Orchestra's star attraction was xylophonist Teddy Brown, then just a teenager and later destined for far greater fame in Britain. However, a Christmas ad placed in Variety on December 28, 1917 shows that Fuller also used George Hamilton Green in this role.
According to an unpublished autobiography by Ted Lewis, Lewis and his "clown band" was playing at the boardwalk at Coney Island; this was a group that had evolved from a circus band and included cornetist Walter Kahn, trombonist Harry Raderman and drummer John Lucas--at that time the "clown band" did not have a pianist. Sometime towards the end of the summer, Fuller approached Lewis' clown band and offered to hire them into Rector's. The contract they signed in September 1916 still survives, and shows that what became "Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band" was signed, as a whole, into Rector's at one time. Trading in their clown costumes for tuxedoes, Fuller's Jazz Band was an immediate success, and appeared at Rector's a few months before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made its acclaimed debut at Reisenweiber's Restaurant in January 1917. The Novelty Orchestra--playing rags, schottisches, waltzes, polkas and two-steps--alternated sets with the more raucous jazz band. While the jazz band was exciting, only the bravest dancers could contend with its tempo. So the resulting show was a successful balance between the revolutionary rhythm of jazz and more sedate material that was friendlier to dancers. According to the 1917 Christmas ad, Fuller also maintained two other groups, his "Celebrated Society Orchestra" and "Earl Fuller's Combination Seven," but of these only the first group is known on recordings through a single Victor side.
The Novelty Orchestra recorded for the first time for Columbia on June 1, 1917 and the jazz band three days later for Victor. Fuller's groups remained busy in the recording studios through February 1919, recording for Victor, Columbia, Edison, Emerson and Starr/Gennett. There is some controversy as to whether Fuller functioned as pianist in the jazz band; some sources contend that the pianist in the Earl Fuller Famous Jazz Band was actually Ernest Cutting, rather than Fuller. However, the Victor ledgers show Fuller as pianist, at least on sides made for that company; Cutting did play with the Famous Jazz Band in live engagements, however. Likewise, Fuller's authorship has been challenged for five Fuller Jazz Band titles credited to Fuller as composer. However, Fuller did publish sheet music that he had written, and Lewis in his autobiography makes no such claim.
Ted Lewis has taken some criticism over his handling of the matter of extracting himself from Rector's and Fuller's control, which included the whole of the Fuller Jazz Band, minus Fuller. In his autobiography, Lewis recalled that by mid-1919 that he was being offered outrageous sums of money by Florenz Ziegfeld to play the Roof Garden of the New Amsterdam Theater. Neither Lewis nor his fellow jazz band members were paid more than other musicians at Rector's, and when his contract came up, he opted not to renew, and the band simply left Fuller along with him, including pianist Ernest Cutting. However, Cutting returned to Fuller after only about a month, and Cutting's composition Jazology was featured on the last recording credited to Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band, made in December 1919. This disc was issued both on Arto and as a special "Earl Fuller Record" with Fuller's picture on the label; the latter is one of the rarest of all early jazz records.
Jazology was one of 15 pieces compiled in Earl Fuller's Collection of Classic Jazz, published by a cooperative which Fuller headed called the American Musicians Syndicate with offices located at 1604 Broadway. The collection was available both as a piano folio and as a set of orchestral parts arranged by Harry L. Alford, whom Fuller brought out from Chicago to make the arrangements; among other pieces in the collection were early works composed by future bandleaders Lou Gold and Irving Aaronson. The folios were issued in conjunction with three Q.R.S. piano roll medleys consisting of nine pieces from the set.
With the final passage of the Volstead Act in October 1919, rather than to continue as a restaurant without a liquor license, Rector's opted to close its doors. After making the final Earl Fuller Famous Jazz Band disc, Fuller took his bands on a coast to coast tour of vaudeville houses in the United States. Variety stated in his obituaty that Fuller therefore "was the first big time orchestra leader to invade the hinterland." On returning to New York, Fuller diversified, renaming his band "Earl Fuller's New York Orchestra" and establishing a dance band booking agency, primarily run by his wife, Katherine. While Fuller's band halted its recording activities in 1921, the booking agency continued in New York until at least 1925. By 1928, Fuller and his wife had relocated to Cincinnati to continue the business there, but it ultimately foundered. Afterward, Fuller served as manager of WFBF radio in Cincinnati. When he died of a heart attack in Morrow, Ohio on August 19, 1947, Earl Fuller was working as a real estate agent in nearby Lebanon. He was buried in Morrow Cemetery, near to, but not in, the Fuller family plot.
Outside of enthusiasts of early jazz and vintage record collectors, Earl Fuller is a forgotten figure. He has not been regarded well by mainstream jazz experts; Gunther Schuller's evaluation of the Fuller Band in the seminal survey Early Jazz was couched in mostly negative terms. However, there are listeners who are attracted to the "crude sort of excitement" that Schuller also alludes to, and overall their recordings are more violent and chaotic sounding than even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Some post-modern scholars refer to its like as "punk jazz," a kind of early jazz with a nihilistic aesthetic akin to the punk rock movement in England in the 1970s. The one inescapable factor of Earl Fuller's legacy is that he played a major role in popularizing jazz in New York City; Ted Lewis' "clown band" may have been one of the first groups to play something that could be regarded as instrumental jazz in New York, and by incorporating their act into his high profile show at Rector's, Fuller exposed the new sound to the very clientele that would take to it most ardently. Moreover, like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Fuller's groups were among the first artists to record pieces that have become standards, such as W. C. Handy's Beale Street Blues.
Apart from Ted Lewis, Teddy Brown and George Hamilton Green, musicians who worked in Fuller's various groups included Sig Behrendson (who sometimes filled in for Raderman), Willie Creager, Ben Selvin, Joe Green, Joe Kayser, Joseph Samuels and Ted Weems. Variety states that of the band Fuller took on tour of the United States "many of the men later formed the basis of the late Ben Bernie's first stage band."