Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


LAYTON, Turner, Henry Creamer and Clarence Johnstone

Turner Layton (b 1892 or '94, Washington DC; d February 1978, London) was a singer, pianist and composer who had an unusual and successful career. His father was a music teacher; he studied medicine but decided to play the piano professionally, making his debut on stage in 1920 in Times Square and recording for the Black Swan label in 1921. As entertainer and songwriter he teamed with lyricist Henry Creamer (b 21 June 1879, Richmond VA; d 14 October 1930, NYC). Creamer had been a co-founder in 1910 with James Reese Europe of the Clef Club, a profoundly influential organization of the black musicians in New York. He was already a show-business veteran when with Layton he wrote one of the best early examples (1918) of a modern popular song: 'After You've Gone' left behind both the parlour sweetness of the 'Bicycle Built For Two' era and the minstrelsy feeling of the 'coon songs', often confused with ragtime. 'After You've Gone' has a powerful, sophisticated and less sentimental verse, and a chorus made entirely of American demotic speech, its powerfully rhyming phrases married to a memorably rhythmic tune and making an instant classic. (Of hundreds of recordings, Bessie Smith's of 1927 and Lionel Hampton's a decade later are each fascinating in their own way.) They also wrote 'Dear Old Southland', 'Way Down Yonder In New Orleans' and others; including Broadway shows Three Showers (which ran for six weeks in 1920) and Strut Miss Lizzie (four weeks in '22). Creamer also wrote 'If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight' with Jimmy Johnson, another standard.

In 1923 Layton was working with Clarence Nathaniel 'Tandy' Johnstone for W.C. Handy, and they formed a vocal duo, with Layton at the piano. They sailed for England when singer Elsie Janis, who had been the 'Forces' Sweetheart' during WWI, booked them for a season in her revue Elsie Janis At Home in London in 1924; then they appeared in late-night cabaret at the Café de Paris (a London club) and were an immediate success. They were said to have sold ten million records and to have a repertoire of 1,000 songs, and a wide variety too, including 'Hard Hearted Hannah', 'Paddlin' Madelin Home', and one of Irving Berlin's first grownup songs, 'What'll I Do'. It ended when Johnstone had an affair with the wife of Palm Court violinist Albert Sandler, and during the subsequent divorce scandal left the country in 1935. He died in obscurity in New York in 1953.

Turner Layton carried on as a solo until he retired in 1946, with a regular spot at the Café de Paris, elegant but with an insouciance available as necessary: he could do Noël Coward and charming nonsense like 'A Little Rendezvous in Honolulu' as well. In those years England had two suave, debonair black Americans singing and playing the piano in cabaret and nightclubs, including Leslie 'Hutch' Hutchinson, who was born in Granada but also came to England via New York (see his entry).

Alabamy Bound is a compilation of 22 Layton and Johnstone tracks from 1924-31, many of them medleys, on Flapper (from Pavilion Records); Turner Layton's These Foolish Things collects 1934-37 tracks on Living Era.