Ella Fitzgerald and Ride em Cowboy

Since my earlier post about Dorothy Dandridge’s version of “Cow Cow Boogie,” I’ve been continuing to look around for information about the Abbott and Costello film Ride ’em Cowboy (for which “Cow Cow Boogie” was written), and it’s turning out to be another interesting case of an intersection of western narrative and African American performance. Produced in 1942, Ride ’em Cowboy has the distinction of being jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald‘s first film role.

Fitzgerald was already famous as a singer. In 1938, she adapted the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” into a song, which sold a million copies and stayed number one on the charts for several weeks. Given her association with the song, it’s not surprising that she also performed it in Ride em Cowboy.

In this clip, Fitzgerald sings “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” while riding on a bus with her fellow ranch workers, as they are heading to the dude ranch where much of the film takes place. Look for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello on the outside of the bus, hanging on to the rear door (which doesn’t prevent them from joining in on the chorus).


2 Responses to “Ella Fitzgerald and Ride em Cowboy”

  1. steve Says:

    I’m a jazz musician who just this morning happened to notice your book “Black Masculinity” in a new library in my area. Regarding page 6, the cover photo of Sonny Rollins, I have some new information for you.

    The following is from Lewis Porter’s biography of Lester Young. Porter is a highly-regarded African American jazz biographer whose biography of John Coltrane, for example, is the only one endorsed by Ravi Coltrane:

    Lester’s preference for the white school of saxophonists helps greatly to account for his arrival at a new approach. Many white players, in contrast to the Hawkins school, preferred the alto saxophone to the tenor and used a light tone and a slower vibrato. American virtuoso Rudy Wiedoeft, a master of light classics, served as the model for Young’s two favorite saxophonists, Jimmy Dorsey and Frankie Trumbauer. (Trumbauer played C-melody saxophone, which is slightly lower in range than the alto.)….

    Young recalled, “I had to make a decision between Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey –y’dig? I wasn’t sure which way I wanted to go, y’dig?…The only people that was tellin’ stories that I liked to hear were them…Ever hear him [Trumbauer] play Singin’ the Blues? That tricked me right there, that’s where I went.”…

    When Young decided on Trumbauer he did not forsake Jimmy Dorsey entirely. Dorsey, a rougher and more aggressive stylist than Trumbauer, experiments with several of the striking effects possible on the saxophone through alternate fingerings and “honks”– effects that Young developed even further, as we will see.

    — Lewis Porter, Lester Young

    I used to have a Charlie Parker record called “The Apartment Sessions,” a home recording made during the 1940s or early 50s but released for the first time in the 1970s or early 80s. You can hear Bird in the background playing an etude, and when someone asks him what it is he answers: “Rudy Wiedoeft.”

    Although I’ve never played one, they’re technically very difficult and “Laughing Gas” is among the best known. (Art Blakey used to have a saxophonist named Bobby Watson who sometimes used the “laughing” saxophone sound. Not too hip to my ears, but people seemed to dig him when he used it.

    There is a chapter on Rudy Wiedoeft in a recently-released history of the saxophone called “The Devil’s Horn: the story of the saxophone, from noisy novelty to king of cool” by Michael Segell. The chapter on Wiedoeft is entitled “A Virtuoso on Horseback” (you see where this is leading).

    A few excerpts:

    Wiedoeft had grown up in a show-biz family and, unwilling to forsake his vaudeville roots, often appeared on stage in a cowboy outfit, replete with chaps, spurs, studded vest, ten-gallon hat, and boots. During a swing through England in 1926s with the urbane Oscar Levant as his accompanist, Wiedoeft wore his cowboy hat everywhere, to the eternal embarrassment of his pianist. He even rented a horse and toured the city on horseback. Two years later, at the peak of his career, he formed a troupe of gorgeous showgirls, all of whom played the saxophone, and took his Saxophobia Idea on the road. The ensemble toured coast to coast for a year, often playing three or four shows a day, and earned an unprecedented amount of money.


    …Saxophone-toting amateurs wanted to be just like Wiedoeft. One, a smitten young singer named Hubert Prior Vallee, wrote eight letters to Wiedoeft describing his love of the instrument and his admiration of Wiedoeft’s skill. After finally being granted an audience with the virtuoso, Vallee, the first singer to use a microphone and speakers during his live performances and whose career would span much of the remaining century, changed his name to Rudy.


    Befitting his showboat persona, Wiedoeft, who had become one of the most instantly recognizable figures of the Roaring Twenties, flamed out in spectacular fashion in the 1930s. The Depression forced many record companies to cut back production or go out of business altogether, and the extraordinary early bands of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and others were nudging musical taste, and the saxophone, in a new direction. Wiedoeft, who by then had a serious drinking problem, reportedly decided to invest most of his money in a Death Valley gold mine. He hired teams of workers to plumb the mine until his money ran out, then worked it by himself whenever he could raise the cash to travel west. By 1937, he was nearly flat broke….


    So double-voiced texts are often impoverished texts compared to jazz texts.

  2. Michael K. Johnson Says:

    Rudy Wiedoeft sounds like a pretty interesting character. I’ll look him up and try to add something about him to the blog–the combination of saxophone and cowboy hat is pretty hard to beat as a topic for the Western Lit blog. Thanks for the nod in his direction!

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