Friday Song: Nick Lucas, I’M LOOKING OVER A FOUR-LEAF CLOVER (Dixon-Woods, 1927)

I suffered a bad attack of the 1920s a few years ago, and have never completely recovered. It seemed to me then (and now) that there has never been such a glorious flowering of popular song, from Broadway to the blues, from vaudeville to country, as there was between the years of 1926 and 1931.

This is not the place to speculate as to what combination of social, musical, technical and entrepreneurial factors caused that great, joyful explosion of song. Suffice it to say that for melody, wit and general exuberance, those years represent a glorious treasure-trove of song-writing brilliance.

There were a number of unquestioned geniuses working in the music businesses at that time. Nick Lucas, ‘The Crooning Troubadour’, was not one of them.

But there are few songs that Lucas recorded in the 1920s that do not make me smile. His voice captures the strange, slightly desperate optimism of the time, and the way he played his guitar was pioneering.

An Italian American, born Nicholas Lucanese in 1897, he was an accomplished banjo-player who started the playing the guitar in the early 1920s. It was the Crooning Troubadour who helped introduce a new style  of guitar playing  – indeed, who first made the guitar cool.

Until then, it had been an orchestral instrument, adding rhythm and fillers to the band’s sound. Lucas put a strap on it, stood up – a novelty in itself  – went out front and sang songs, with guitar solos. His method of playing, providing a lead line while keeping the  rhythm going, was unusual then, although Mother Maybelle Carter was doing something comparable  at exactly the same time with the Carter Family (here she is playing ‘Wildwood Flower‘, first recorded in 1928).

In other words, the combination of song and guitar riffs that we now take for granted  with Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, Janis Ian, Martin Simpson  and many others was first tried by Nick Lucas. No wonder, Gibson designed a guitar for him and no wonder great guitarists from different genres – Joe Pass, Merle Travis, Doc Watson – have cited him as an influence on them 

How I love the Crooning Troubadour! There’s scarcely a song on my CD compilation of his hits that does not bring me joy.

He helped introduce ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ (with its now-forgotten verse) to the world  in 1925, and ‘Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips‘.  His ‘My Bundle of Love‘ is the ultimate Charleston song. He really is the voice of the 1920s.

I’ve chosen ‘I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover’, written by Mort Dixon and the great Harry Woods, partly because it gleefully includes every Tin Pan Alley cliché of the time, and partly because its rhythm and tune are so infectious. Best of all, though, is the guitar solo. It’s not a virtuoso performance, but it sounds as if Lucas knew that he was doing something fresh and original. it has the feel of a little bit of history being made.

The Crooning Troubadour had an astonishingly long career. Her appeared in several films during the 1930s and was a regular on the TV chat show circuit until the 1970s – here is on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in December 1969. 

The 1920s, though, were his decade. After then, he was probably always a bit of a throwback  – a bit of a joke figure, one suspects.

And this is the song, sweetly sung, with  a bouncy rhythm, silly words and that fantastic strutting guitar, that for me brings to life that amazing period in our musical history.

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