Top Musical Acts of the 1920s

The 1920s marked the beginning of the modern music era. The recording music industry was at its embryonic stages, and several new technologies helped create the way music was produced and distributed.

The gramophone had become more popular, and the previous acoustical recording process was replaced by electronic, which further improved sound quality. The growing popularity of radio and the transition from silent movies into “talkies” incorporated recorded sounds, opening a whole new venue for the distribution of popular music.

The 1920s saw the popularity of genres such as blues, Broadway, dance bands, and jazz. Many artists became huge stars during their time. Unfortunately, some of them have been forgotten in the tombs of musical history. However, this article allows you to discover the artists of the bygone eras and their music.

1. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra

The Paul Whiteman Orchestra was responsible for introducing several jazz and pop standards during this decade. Composer and conductor Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) and his henchmen recorded numbers such as “Want Wang Blues,” “Mississippi Mud,” “Wonderful One,” “Hot Lips (He’s Got Hot Lips When He Plays Jazz),” “Grand Canyon Suite,” “Trav’llin Light,” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” among many others. Whiteman was known for blending the elements of classical or symphonic music and jazz, which received both praise and criticism.

In 1924 Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin’s musical composition “Rhapsody in Blue.” That same year, “Rhapsody in Blue” received its (now-historic) premiere by Whiteman’s orchestra, with Whiteman as conductor and Gershwin as a piano soloist.

2. Al Jolson

The name “Al Jolson” may sound familiar to you. Today, he is best remembered as the star of the world’s first-ever “talkie,” The Jazz Singer (1927), which effectively ended the silent film era. Jolson, born Asa Yoelson of Russian-Jewish descent in 1886, was a versatile artist – he was an actor, singer, and comedian. He put his talents to greatest use through his dynamic style of singing jazz, making this musical genre – which is a traditional African-American music – popular and accessible to white audiences.

3. Ted Lewis & His Band

It’s hard to believe that Ted Lewis & His Band – a name you’ve most likely never heard of before – was one of the wildly popular acts during their time. The bandleader, Ted Lewis (born Theodore Leopold Friedman in 1890 – died in 1971), managed to sell millions of records when those very numbers rarely occurred for more than once a year. It’s even harder to imagine that Lewis managed to maintain an active and successful showbiz career across all aspects – radio, movie, television, recording, and touring. He and his band were only second in popularity to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra during the 1920s. But unlike Whiteman, Lewis and his band played closer to the original jazz style. His blend of jazz, comedy, and nostalgia clicked with the American audiences, who needed an escape from the difficulties brought by wars and economic depression. In those times, his famous catchphrase, “Is everybody happy?”(along with “Yessir!”) didn’t seem out-of-place – it was a gesture of encouragement for his fans to enjoy his music.

4. Gene Austin

Gene Austin will always have a place in music history as one of the world’s first “crooners.” The singer-songwriter (born Lemeul Eugene Lucas in 1900 – died in 1971) will always be remembered for his song “My Blue Heaven,” which sold over five million copies and was the biggest-selling record of all time. He wrote (or co-wrote) songs such as “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street” and “The Lonesome Road,” which became jazz and pop standards. His unique singing and performing style was a big influence to later crooners such as Bing Crosby, Russ Culombo, and Frank Sinatra, among others.

5. Isham Jones & His Orchestra

Isham Jones (1894 – 1956) led several bands during the 1920s and the 1930s. However, his most significant and most memorable achievement was being a songwriter, having penned songs such as “It Had to Be You,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “On the Alamo,” “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” and “There Is No Greater Love.” In 1921, Isham Jones & His Orchestra recorded “Wabash Blues,” written by Dave Ringle and Fred Meinken. The recording became a major success for Jones and his band, selling millions of records. It stayed at number one on the national charts for six weeks and was awarded a gold disc. Among the most notable members of Jones’ orchestra included trumpeter Louis Panico, clarinetist Benny Goodman, clarinetist and saxophonist Woody Herman, double-bassist Walt Yoder, and pianist and composer Roy Bargy.

6. Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra

Nat Shilkret (1889 – 1982) was a composer, musician, conductor, and business executive known for his association with RCA Victor as well as for his musical work. He worked as a clarinetist with New York Philharmonic and also played with John Philip Sousa’s band, as well as other bands. He served as Victor’s “Director of Light Music” from 1915 to 1935. He conducted several of Victor’s orchestral accompaniments during these years also. In 1935, he relocated to Hollywood, where he did several scores and served as a musical director for several studios until 1946. His film scoring credits include Mary of Scotland (1936), Swing Time (1936), The Plough and the Stars, and Shall We Dance (1937), plus several Laurel and Hardy films. From 1946 through the 1950s, he worked at RKO-Pathe, making short films.

7. Marion Harris

Marion Harris rose to fame during the 1920s as one of the first white female singers to perform jazz and blues songs. Born Mary Ellen Harrison in 1896, her recording career began for Victor Records, and then for Columbia, where she recorded the song by W. C. Handy, “St. Louis Blues” after Victor forbade her to record it. Harris’ popularity rose from then on, and she was hailed as “The Queen of the Blues.” Many people mistook her as a black singer because she sang jazz and blues so well. She also appeared NBC radio shows such as The Ipana Troubadours and Rudy Vallee’s The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour. NBC called her “The Little Girl with the Big Voice.” She died in 1944 in a hotel fire when she fell asleep smoking in her bed.

8. Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians

Fred Waring (1900-1984) was also one of the popular acts of the 1920s. He was a musician and radio and television personality who led a dance band Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians (or Waring’s Pennsylvanians). The band was founded in 1918 by Waring, his brother Tom, and their friends at Penn State University, Waring’s alma mater. They first performed under the name The Collegians. In 1925, they scored their first hit with the song “Collegiate.” Waring’s Pennsylvanians rose to popularity with other hit novelty numbers such as “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana” and “I Wonder How I Look Like When I’m Asleep.” They even became more popular during the 1930s by making appearances in radio and movies, and they somewhat became a trailblazer when they became the first band to broadcast its own television show. The band transformed itself into a serious business venture, becoming a corporation from the 1950s through the 1970s with businesses in workshops, publishing, and real estate.

9. Ruth Etting

Ruth Etting (1896 – 1978) was a popular singer and actress during the 1920s and 1930s. She had more than sixty hit recordings and worked in stage, radio, and film. Among her signature songs include “Shine On,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” and “Love Me or Leave Me.” Etting’s other songs such as “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Means to Me,” “Exactly Like You,” and “Shaking the Blues Away” also gained considerable popularity. Her tumultuous personal life and relationships were just as interesting as her career. She retired in 1938 after marrying her second husband and relocating together at a farm outside of Colorado Springs.

10) George Olsen and His Music

George Edward Olsen, Sr. (1893 – 1971) was a drummer and bandleader of George Olsen and His Music, whom he formed in his birthplace in Portland, Oregon. He and his band were one of popular acts of the recording label Victor (now RCA Records), and its voluminous number of releases are the obvious testaments of their popularity. Olsen also recorded for Columbia, Decca, and the rare Varsity record label. Among the best-known members of Olsen’s band include singer and saxophonist Fred MacMurray and alto saxist and singer Fran Frey, who became stars in their own right.

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