The Original Memphis Five were the Lauderdale family's favorite performers. Many nights, locked away in my little bedroom in the mansion tower, I would place one of their tunes on my old gramophone and skip around the room, entranced by their melodies.
In fact, for a music recital held when I was 35, I chose one of their most popular songs — "Suez," described as "the Oriental fox-trot romance" — and sang it to the half-dozen guests crammed into the Lauderdale ballroom. To this day, I can remember the soaring refrain ("Suez, wondrous Suez, where I was captured with your love sigh / All day, and through the night, to be with you I cry"). And when I hit that final word "cry" in my soaring falsetto, well, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Whether from the beauty of my voice, or my innovative oboe solo that followed, it's hard to say. I can still see my Aunt Henrietta covering her ears with her blue-veined hands, my performance obviously so beautiful she simply couldn't stand it. Ah, good times!
It wasn't until years later that I learned that the only thing accurate about the name of the Original Memphis Five was the "five" part. First of all, their music wasn't always original. "Suez" was produced by other songwriters, for instance, as were most of their hit songs. And — here's the odd thing — not a single one of their members hailed from Memphis. How they came up with the name of their group, I have no idea.
This much I do know: The Original Memphis Five was a jazz quintet formed in New Orleans around 1917 by trumpet player Phil Napoleon and pianist Frank Signorelli. I guess those two fellows are depicted on the cover of the old sheet music (left), but it doesn't say. Other members included Jimmy Lytell, Charlie Parnelli, and Jack Roth; old photos show the group with a clarinet, trombone, and drums, but I couldn't tell you who played what. It doesn't matter, really. Not to me, anyway.
The Five were incredibly popular through the 1920s and 1930s, cranking out dozens of hit records and selling thousands of pages of sheet music. I can still hum many of their songs, which included such wonderfully titled classics as "Aggravatin' Papa," "Bees Knees," "Don't Pan Me When I'm Gone," "Got To Cool My Doggies Now," "If Your Man Is Like My Man, I Sympathize With You," "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate," "My Honey's Loving Arms," "That Teasin' Squeezin' Man of Mine," and — my personal favorite — "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time!"
I don't know what happened to all the musicians over the years. The only one who really became famous was Phil Napoleon, who later played with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and opened his own nightclub, Napoleon's Retreat, in Miami. According to redhotjazz.com, he died there in 1990.