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Everyman's McCormack:
A John Steel Bio-Discography

Jphn Steel and Grace Moore, 1923
John Steel and Grace Moore in Music Box Revue
of 1923
(Los Angeles Times)

By Allan Sutton

I found my first John Steel 78s in the early 1970s. Being a typical new collector, with a lot more enthusiasm than knowledge, I was convinced that I had discovered a John McCormack pseudonym. Fellow collectors, including several who should have known better, agreed.

I could not have been more wrong,
of course.

John Steel was no John McCormack, although he unapologetically emulated the great Irish tenor. He was, however, a colorful personality and a major stage star of the 1920s whose story is finally beginning to emerge.

The date of John Steel’s birth is uncertain. Several writers, including Brian Rust and Tim Gracyk, have given it as 1900, without citing a source. If that is correct, Steel would still have been a minor at the time of his first successes on the stage. In 1923, he recalled of his early training,

I went to [vocal] teacher after teacher in the vain hope of finding the right one. It is true that some of them helped me, but mostly as regards correctness, accuracy, and general musicianship. Interpretation—matters of real expression—must come from within, not from without. I simply sing the songs I love, and I sing my songs as I like them best. 1

Steel’s earliest reliably documented appearance was as a member of the Triangle Trio, a vocal group that performed at the Brooklyn Academy in January 1917. 2 He quickly established a reputation as a sort of working-class version of John McCormack, whose style he openly emulated.

By 1918 Steel had landed his first major Broadway role, the part of Lieutenant Rugini in The Maid of the Mountains. A New York adaptation of a London hit that opened at the Casino Theatre on September 11, 1918, the show was not a notable success. It closed in New York after only 37 performances, 3 but it brought Steel to the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld as well as the Victor Talking Machine Company, which signed him to an exclusive contract in early 1919.

Steel was given a starring role in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, only to find himself embroiled in that year’s Actors Equity strike. He sided with the strikers, and on August 11, 1919, Ziegfeld obtained a court injunction against Steel and all other Follies members, including the chorus girls. As they entered the stage door that night, Steel and the others were served with a temporary injunction preventing their striking. 4 In response Steel, in the company of such greats as W. C. Fields and Ethel Barrymore, sang on August 18 at a benefit in support of the strikers at the Lexington Theater. 5

John Steel on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit

Steel in a late 1920s Orpheum Theaters publicity photo

By the autumn of 1919, the strike was settled and the rift with Ziegfeld was healed. Steel was given a starring role in the 1920 Follies, introducing “Tell Me, Little Gypsy” and “The Girls of My Dreams,” and “The Love Boat.” A New York Times critic opined, “John Steel, whose voice was one of the hits of last year’s show, again won the vocal honors, even though he did sing so well as a year ago.” 6 Victor lost no time in bringing Steel to the studio to record his new hits, all of which sold well. But while Fannie Brice and other Ziegfeld stars enjoyed the status of blue-label artists, Steel was inexplicably left in Victor's lowly black-label series.

Steel had enjoyed his greatest success to date in the 1920 Follies, but his career was about to be briefly derailed by domestic problems. In August 1921, Steel’s wife—a minor vaudeville performer known professionally as Sidonie Espero 7—sued for divorce on the grounds of abandonment and cruelty, claiming that Steel refused to speak to her, or even acknowledge her presence. In response, Steel told the court that “she betrayed a desire to boss me, and I told her that if she must be the man of the house, I would give her the trousers and she could wear them.” “Marriage is a frost,” Steel told the press. “It’s the bachelor life for me in the future.” 8 At the trial, it was revealed that Steel earned between $78,000 and $100,000 per year from his stage and recording work—a vast sum for the period.

By September 1921, Steel’s former wife was attempting to have jailed for failure to pay alimony. 9 Steel denied the large income attributed to him, claiming that most of it went to pay his creditors. The divorce litigation dragged on for more than three years, with a final decree not issued until March 1925. Within days of the final ruling, Steel married Mabel Stapleton, a Chicago pianist, who would serve for a time as his accompanist in vaudeville. 10

Unlike Walter Van Brunt—another pseudo-Irish tenor who suffered from similar bad publicity as the result of a contentious and highly publicized divorce—Steel was able to quickly put the publicity behind him and proceed with a highly successful career. In 1922 he left Ziegfeld for Irving Berlin, starring in the 1922 and 1923 productions of the Music Box Revue. The latter, however, would be his last appearance in a Broadway musical, and Victor did not renew him at the end of 1923. Steel was later scheduled to appear in the 1925 edition of the Music Box Revue, but withdrew at the last minute, leaving a young Wynn Bullock to fill his role. 11

In 1922, Steel had begun touring the country on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. In a 1923 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Steel professed his preference for vaudeville over musical comedy:

Vaudeville for mine! I enjoyed my work in the Follies, but not like I do in vaudeville. In a production, one must sing the songs allotted to the part, whether they satisfy one personally. In vaudeville it is different—I choose my own songs and can sing the melodies which the public likes... I was greatly surprised, upon entering vaudeville, to find that the average audience really likes the better class of music as well as jazz.... [Vaudeville] is the means of singing to the masses... and I like it better than anything I have done to date. 12

Steel, too, increasingly showed a preference for the West Coast. Beginning in 1922 13 he spent the summer seasons headlining at Orpheum theaters in California, Oregon, and Washington state. He particularly favored Los Angeles, where he revealed another side of his personality, appearing as an amateur boxer in staged matches at the Orpheum. 14 In return, Los Angeles embraced Steel, showering him with publicity and hosting him as guest of honor at meetings of the Music Trades Association of Southern California. 15 The Los Angeles Times devoted lengthy stories to Steel’s appearances, as well as his opinions on singing (“Sing songs in your natural voice and which are actually suited to your singing ability, and God will take care of your voice” 16) and the state of the theater.

John Steel in the boxing ring, 1922

Steel in the ring (left), 1922
(Los Angeles Times)

During the winter months of 1924–28, Steel returned to New York to headline at the Hippodrome. His career was slowly going into decline, however. By 1929 he was getting secondary billing at the Riverside and other smaller New York houses. Then, in 1930, came the news that Steel was once again being sued for divorce. On April 26 of that year, Mabel Stapleton charged Steel with desertion, making news across the nation. In the end, it was a fairly amicable separation that Stapleton shrugged off with the observation, “You know how it is with people on the stage,” after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Steel. 17

Steel had weathered his first divorce, but the publicity surrounding his second marital crisis, combined with changing musical tastes and the devastating effects of the Depression, nearly ended his career. By 1931, he was a taking second billing in a vaudeville act that preceded the screenings at the Los Angeles’ RKO-Hillstreet movie theater. 18 He carried on into the late 1930s, performing in dinner clubs and small-time vaudeville houses, and making the occasional radio broadcast, but his days as a star were over. In later years he worked as a vocal instructor before vanishing entirely from the public's view. His death in New York on June 24, 1971, went unnoticed; the New York Times did not even run an obituary.

Notes

1 “Exerting Voice Is Ruinous.” Los Angeles Times (6/30/1923), p. I-19.
2 “Brooklyn Music.” New York Times (1/14/1917), p. X5.
3 Norton, Richard C. A Chronology of American Musical Theater (Vol. 2), p. 158. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
4 “Striking Actors Sued for $500,000 by the Shuberts; Ziegfeld Gets an Injunction.” New York Times (8/12/1919).
5 Wollcott, Alexander. “The Play.” New York Times (8/19/1919), p. 10.
6 “1920 Follies Huge and Fast Moving.” New York Times (6/23/1920), p. 21.
7 “John Steel Marries.” New York Times (3/23/1925), p. 14.
8 “Tenor Must Pay Alimony.” New York Times (8/26/1921), p. 2.
9 “Tenor’s Wife Seeks to Have Him Jailed.” Los Angeles Times (9/9/1921), p. I-19.
10 “John Steel Marries.” New York Times (3/23/1925), p. 14.
11 “New York Tenor Will Appear at Metropolitan [Theatre].” Los Angeles Times (6/20/1925), p. 7.
12 “John Steel Strong for ‘Two-a-Day.’” Los Angeles Times (7/27/1924), p. B18.
13 "Playdom." Los Angeles Times (6/8/1922), p. I-11.
14 “A He-Man Tenor.” Los Angeles Times (8/3/1922), p. III-2.
15 See, for example, “John Steel Guest of Music Trades Body.” Los Angeles Times (6/21/1923), P. I-15.
16 “Exerting Voice Is Ruinous,” op. cit.
17 “Wife Divorces John Steel.” New York Times (4/27/1930), p. 26
18 “Ina Claire Successful in ‘Rebound.’” Los Angeles Times (9/27/1931), p. B13.


JOHN STEEL DISCOGRAPHY

Note: John Steel is one of more than 400 actors, vaudevillians, and musical comedy stars whose complete recordings are detailed in The American Stage Performers Discography, coming later this year from Mainspring Press.

New York: 1916
Note: Majestic 117 (“My Wild Irish Rose”) has been reported anecdotally as a Steel recording, but copies seen to date are by Charles Harrison, who was also credited for this number in Majestic's ads and advance listings.

New York: August 22, 1918
Acc: Unknown
Unknown title
62388-     Columbia special
Note: This is a private or trial recording. It is logged in the Columbia files, but no further details are shown there.

Montreal, Canada: c. 1918–19
Acc: Studio orchestra
Roses
HMV-Victor (Canadian) 235000 (12”)

Someday I'll Come
HMV-Victor (Canadian) 235000 (12”)

Nirvana
HMV-Victor (Canadian) 235001 (12”)

Thora
HMV-Victor (Canadian) 235001 (12”)

Camden NJ: April 9, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Girl of My Heart
B-22677-1,-2     Victor unissued

A Rose, a Kiss and You
B-22678-1,-2     Victor unissued
Note: Both titles were remade on April 17, 1919.

Camden NJ: April 17, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Girl of My Heart
B-22677-4     Victor 18551

A Rose, a Kiss and You
B-22678-3     Victor 18551

Camden NJ: May 12, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
When She Gives Him a Shamrock Bloom
B-22845-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

Thank God You're Here, Mother Dear
B-22846-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued
Note: Both titles were remade on May 20, 1919.

Camden NJ: May 20, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
When She Gives Him a Shamrock Bloom
B-22845-4–7     Victor unissued

Thank God You're Here, Mother Dear
B-22846-4,-5,-6     Victor unissued

Camden NJ: June 23, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody (Ziegfeld Follies of 1919)
B-23026-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

Tulip Time (Ziegfeld Follies of 1919)
B-23027-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued
Note: Both titles were remade on June 30, 1919.

Camden NJ: June 30, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody (Ziegfeld Follies of 1919)
B-23026-5     Victor 18588

Tulip Time (Ziegfeld Follies of 1919)
B-23027-5     Victor 18588

Camden NJ: July 17, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Dear Heart
B-23077-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

My Baby's Arms (Ziegfeld Follies of 1919)
B-23078-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued
Note: Both titles were remade on July 28, 1919.

Camden NJ: July 28, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Dear Heart
B-23077-4,-5,-6     Victor unissued

My Baby's Arms (Ziegfeld Follies of 1919)
B-23078-7 Victor 18611
Note: The first title was remade on August 4, 1919.

Camden NJ: August 4, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Dear Heart
B-23077-9     Victor 18606

The Hand that Rocked My Cradle Rules My Heart
B-23106-3     Victor 18611

Camden NJ: August 11, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Erin
B-23119-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

When Love Sings a Song in Your Heart
B-23120-1,-2,-3 Victor unissued
Note: The first title was remade on October 20, 1919.

Camden NJ: September 29, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
When Others Are Building Castles in the Air (I’ll Build a Cottage for Two)
B-23176-4     Victor 18635

Give Me a Smile and a Kiss
B-23177-3     Victor 18623

Camden NJ: October 20, 1919
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Erin
B-23119-4,-5,-6     Victor unissued

Camden NJ: May 12, 1920
The Love Nest (Mary)
B-24106-2     Victor 18676
                      HMV (English) B.1187

Camden NJ: July 13, 1920
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
The Love Boat (Ziegfeld Follies of 1920)
B-24317-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

Tell Me, Little Gypsy (Ziegfeld Follies of 1920)
B-24318-3     Victor 18687

The Girls of My Dreams (Ziegfeld Follies of 1920)
B-24319-1,-2     Victor unissued
Note: The first and third titles were remade on July 27, 1920.

Camden NJ: July 27, 1920
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
The Love Boat (Ziegfeld Follies of 1920)
B-24317-5     Victor 18695

The Girls of My Dreams (Ziegfeld Follies of 1920)
B-24319-4     Victor 18687

Camden NJ: September 10, 1920
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Rose of My Heart
B-24458-2     Victor 18724

Whispering
B-24459-3     Victor 18695
                      HMV (English) B.1187

Camden NJ: October 8, 1920
Acc: Studio orchestra (Joseph Pasternack, director)
Avalon
B-24617-1–4     Victor unissued

No Voice But Yours (No Hope, No Love, Save in Your Dear Eyes)
B-24618-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

When I Look in Your Wonderful Eyes
B-24619-3     Victor 18724

Camden NJ: July 13, 1921
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Song of Songs
B-25394-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

If You Only Knew
B-25395-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

The World Can't Go ’Round Without You
B-25396-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued
Note: The second and third titles were remade on September 15, 1921.

Camden NJ: September 15, 1921
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
If You Only Knew
B-25395-5     Victor 18825
                      HMV (English) B.1327

The World Can't Go ’Round Without You
B-25396-4,-5,-6     Victor unissued

I'll Forget You
B-25561-1,-2,-3 Victor unissued

Camden NJ: September 22, 1921
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Sally, Won't You Come Back?
B-25566-4     Victor 18813

Bring Back My Blushing Rose
B-25567-2     Victor 18813

Camden NJ: November 2, 1921
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Whisper to Me in the Starlight
B-25739-2     Victor 18836

Say It With Music (Music Box Revue)
B-25740-3     Victor 18828
                      HMV (Engish) B.1320

Camden NJ: November 3, 1921
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Rose of My Soul
B-25743-2     Victor 18836

Love Will Return in the Spring
B-25744-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

Camden NJ: December 21, 1921
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
I'll Forget You
B-25561-4     Victor 18844
                      HMV (English) B.1359

The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise
B-25912-2     Victor 18844
                       HMV (E) B.1359

Camden NJ: March 28, 1922
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Mother of Love
B-26183-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

Only a Smile
B-26184-2     Victor 18934

Camden NJ: October 11, 1922
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
November Rose
B-27021-1–5     Victor unissued
Note: This title was remade on November 16, 1922.

Camden NJ: November 16, 1922
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
November Rose
B-27021-9     Victor 19015

Lady of the Evening (Music Box Revue)
B-27079-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued
Note: The second title was remade on November 28, 1922.

Camden NJ: November 28, 1922
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Lady of the Evening (Music Box Revue)
B-27079-7     Victor 18990

Will She Come From the East? (Music Box Revue)
B-27094-3     Victor 18990

Camden NJ: February 19, 1923
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
When the Gold Turns to Grey
B-27556-2     Victor 19089

Out Where the Blue Begins
B-27557-4     Victor 19053

Hope
B-27558-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued

Camden NJ: May 17, 1923
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
My Pal (Music Box Revue)
B-27958-2     Victor 19131

Just an Old Love Song (Music Box Revue)
B-27959-1,-2,-3     Victor unissued
Note: The second title was remade on June 1, 1923.

Camden NJ: June 1, 1923
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Just an Old Love Song
B-27959-6     Victor 19089

Camden NJ: October 22, 1923
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Little Butterfly
B-28680-2     Victor 19219

An Orange Grove in California
B-28681-1,-2     Victor unissued

Camden NJ: December 10, 1923
Acc: Studio orchestra (Rosario Bourdon, director)
Song of Songs
B-25394-5     Victor 19232

An Orange Grove in California
B-28681-5     Victor 19219

Take this Little Rosebud
B-29074-3     Victor 19232

Note: Steel later recorded in England. Those records will be covered in a forthcoming revision.


Document History: First posting 4/17/2007.



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