Nick’s Olly Oakley Record Review of the Month

Every month a review of an Olly Oakley recording which readers can download in MP3 format.

Click here to see page1 of Drum Major March 

Click here to see page2 of Drum Major March 


Recording matrix number: 28478

Recording date: ca April 1913

Label: Regal G-6203

(Also issued on: Columbia-Rena 2157)

This formed part of a session of six recordings made around April 1913. The flip side is the Red Cockade March while the other pairings are Mountaineers March / For The Flag March and The Kilties / A Darkie Chuckle. This last-mentioned disc, however, appeared under the Phoeix label. Always a puzzle when considering recordings purportedly made during the same session is when one disc runs sharp of concert pitch and another runs flat. Here the Drum Major and Red Cockade recordings are a little bit above pitch while the Mountaineers and For The Flag, also appearing on the Regal label, are almost a semitone flat when played at 78 rpm. What the true pitch of this session was is a matter of speculation as too is the question as to whether all the pieces were indeed recorded on the same and with the same piano.

On 15th June 1927 Oakley redid the four Regal numbers here along with Coloured Major March / Sweet Jasmine which he had previously recorded for Regal in 1912. These records bear the same serial numbers with an R added at the end. More of that session later.

The 1913 rendering of Drum Major presented here is one of Oakley’s defining achievements. The finger technique is clean as a whistle, the tone is powerful and sweet and the tempo bright. Above all, however, it is his instinctive sense of rhythm which sets this recording alight. For an unfair comparison with an ordinary mortal listen first to George Morris’s Decca recording and then play Olly’s version. As always he peppers every harmonic lull with a crisp triplet role and adds delightful rhythmic variations such as on one occasion replacing the first quaver off-beat in the first bar of the first section by a semiquaver rest and semiquaver two-note chord (C, E).

In today’s world of drum machines and electronic tunes playing while you wait in telephone queues it might not be amiss to discuss further what is meant here by "sense of rhythm". Oakley does not play like a metronome and his performance is for listening to not for marching to. (In any case the tempo would better suit an athlete than a soldier). His phrasing of individual notes and chords is aimed at creating a sense of life and bounce. This is achieved by judicious use of several means such as slightly delaying the quaver off-beat leading to the main beat of the following bar. Thus, when playing two semiquavers or a semiquaver triplet bridging an off-beat to the succeeding on-beat he tends to delay the start of these little figures by a barely perceptible fraction of a second. He then plays the figure in question slightly faster in order to compensate for this delay and so arrives bang on time at the on-beat. On-beat notes are occasionally prefaced by acciaccatura notes played on the same string. (The crispness of this effect is something denied players who don’t pick with their fingernails).

The Remake

Recording matrix number: WA-5687 (27633)

Recording date: 15th June, 1927

Label: Regal G-6203-R

By 1927 Oakley’s technique had deteriorated and most of the achievements of the earlier recording were beyond him. He attempts a slightly faster tempo than before but his fingers simply refuse to move like they used to. The triplets rarely come out and the six-note semiquaver scale figure at the end of the first section is fluffed every time. This is a sad performance and in many ways inferior to the few remaining recordings he was to make in which he had learnt to accept the limitations of his technique.

If you see a record of Drum Major March on the Regal label for sale then make sure its serial number is G-6203 and not G-6203-R.

Duets with Joe Morley

Oakley recorded the Drum Major on two other occasions, both in 1914, as so-called "duets" with the composer Joe Morley. The earlier of the two recordings appeared on the Beka, Favourite, Scala and Coliseum labels while the latter was released on Diamond and Pathé. I haven’t heard this second recording but the former is a breezy if uninspired account in which Morley brings the wayward Oakley to heel with respect to his various interpretation of the composer’s intentions. The duets by Oakley and Morley are not actually duets – the two of them are both playing the first banjo part. This was an interesting experiment if for no other reason than that it demonstrates the obvious, i.e. that the finger-style banjo is essentially a solo instrument and does not lend itself to doubling. Oakley’s and Morley’s approaches were so different that all that could ever come from such a venture was chaos or, as here, a bland compromise of two great talents.


Click here to download Drum Major March in mp3 format 


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