The 'Glee' Shows Before 'Glee' ... Way Before 'Glee'

[caption id="attachment_59115" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Glee A still from "Dynamic Duets," the November 22 episode of 'Glee.'[/caption]

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

This week saw the release of Glee: The Music, Season 4, Volume 1, the 13th volume in the bestselling soundtrack series from TV's occasionally adorable barometer of American mainstream musical taste. (Come on: the Thanksgiving episode's medley of Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have a Kiki" and the Broadway show Promises, Promises' "Turkey Lurkey Time" is something that couldn't have happened anywhere else on television.)

Glee only seems like a novelty these days, though, because there aren't a lot of regular TV shows that involve the same cast performing current hits every week. But musical programs used to be fairly commonplace on TV, and they were a staple of early radio. One of the most familiar radio genres, from the '20s through the early '50s, was "sponsored musical features": instead of advertising during programs, which seemed less than classy, a single advertiser would put its name on a daily or weekly feature with a star singer (backed up by a band or orchestra) performing for 15 minutes or so.

Most were broadcast live; a few were recorded in advance, once that became technically feasible. And a few involved musicians who were already well known on their own--Hank Williams, for instance, was the star of the Health & Happiness Show (sponsored by the boozy vitamin supplement Hadacol) in 1949. He later hosted a year's worth of the Mother's Best Flour Show, five mornings a week (often pre-recorded, which is why so many of his appearances there survive). Here's an episode of the latter series, beginning with its theme song: a verse of Williams' early hit "Lovesick Blues."

Kraft Music Hall was one of the longest-lived sponsored variety shows--launched in 1933, it switched to television 25 years later, and remained on the air until 1971. Its most famous performer was Bing Crosby, who hosted the show from 1936 to 1946, a period when he was one of the biggest pop stars in America. Crosby was also famous for singing patriotic songs (and performing for U.S. troops during World War II); here's a 1943 Kraft Music Hall performance of "The Vict'ry Polka."

There was actually a little subgenre of music-revue radio shows recorded specifically for the Armed Forces. Command Performance--broadcast via shortwave to American troops overseas during World War II--was one of them, and occasionally filmed as well. That's the source of this clip of an unbelievable Betty Hutton performance of "Murder, He Says," introduced by Bob Hope. If you only click on one clip in this post, make it this one. Seriously.

A few musical feature shows were responsible for launching musicians' careers. The Light Crust Doughboys were formed to promote Burrus Mill's Light Crust Flour on Texas radio; they ended up doing more for members Bob Wills and Milton Brown, who left early on and became the pioneers of Western swing. Here's their 1938 recording "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy"--perhaps there's a little more double-entendre in there than they could've gotten away with on the radio.

One of the earliest sponsored acts was the duo of Ernest Hare and Billy Jones--both already successful on their own--who performed on the radio as the Happiness Boys from 1923 to 1929, sponsored by the Happiness Candy Stores. (After that, they were the Flit Soldiers, then the Interwoven Pair, then the Taystee Loafers, and finally the Gilette Gentlemen.) Hare and Jones specialized in novelty songs; their biggest hit may have been 1925's "I Miss My Swiss."

They weren't the only ones who changed their performing names along with their sponsor. Singin' Sam--real name Harry Frankel--got his start in radio in 1930, when he was Singin' Sam the Lawnmower Man. He gained his greatest fame, though, when he joined forces with a shaving cream company and became Singin' Sam the Barbasol Man for fifteen minutes every weeknight. By 1937, he was also recording twenty 15-minute shows a month for Coca-Cola's "Refreshment Time with Singin' Sam." Here's an entire "Refreshment Time" show from Halloween, 1939.

Surprisingly, one sponsored musical feature is still running, long after its sponsor folded: Helena, Arkansas' King Biscuit Time celebrated its 71st anniversary last week (although it was off the air from 1979 to 1986), and it's still a showcase for blues musicians. Sonny Boy Williamson was the original star of King Biscuit Time, and even though this video--King Biscuit Flour owner Max Moore's home movie of a circa-1942 performance by Williamson and Junior Lockwood--is silent, it's a remarkable taste of what the show offered in its earliest days.