Friday, October 23, 2020

"Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?"

The Short Life and Tragic Death of Songwriter Hughie Cannon

Written by Robert A. Waters

Hughie Cannon was born in Detroit, Michigan on April 9, 1877. His father, John Cannon, was a writer and actor while May, his mother, was an actress and dancer. The marriage didn't last, and soon Hughie's father drifted away into the dark mists of ragtime bars and whores. May began traveling the Midwest acting in burlesque shows. According to the Daily Courier, "Hughie was 'raised in an actor's trunk' in the literal sense of the word. His home was a dressing room or a rolling train with one focal point--the 'show' illuminated by gas lights."

May used the stage name, "Little Trixie." She was about five feet tall and beautiful, and by all accounts, an extraordinary dancer. (She eventually remarried, settled in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and opened a chain of successful theaters.) Life on the road was tough, but Hughie was a precocious child. He learned to play piano early on and began writing songs in his teens. Unfortunately, by that time the demon rum had already gripped his soul.

Several days before his death, the broken, homeless musician told his life's story to a reporter. "I quit the coke easy," Hughie said. "Fifteen days in jail cured me of that. I hit the pipe in New York for a year and stopped that. I went up against the morphine hard and quit, but booze--red, oily booze--that's got me for keeps. I started when I was sixteen. I'm thirty-six now and except for seven months on the wagon, I've been pickled most of the time. It was twenty years--twenty black, nasty, sick years--with only a little brightness now and then when I made good with some song."

Hughie wrote several songs that became popular, but sold the rights to each of them for a pittance.

His most famous tune, "Bill Bailey," netted him only $350. (By contrast, some successful songwriters of the day grossed more than $30,000 per year.) Strung out, desperately needing to get high, he sold the rights  of "Bill Bailey" to a New York vaudeville producer. Within days, the frolicking tune was the most popular song on Broadway. When phonograph records came along a few years later, "Bill Bailey" quickly sold more than a million copies. Everybody got rich on it except Hughie.

During this time, the singer-songwriter was playing speakeasies, taverns and roadhouses across the Midwest. He often played in Jackson, Michigan, a tough railroad town called "Little Chicago," known for its corrupt politicians and freewheeling morals. James Treloar described a saloon where Hughie sometimes played. Treloar wrote: "Men could get beer for 5 cents a pint, bar whiskey right out of the barrel for 10 cents, listen to a drifter named Hugh Cannon pound the piano keys, and later on begin eyeing the bawdy house upstairs over the grocery across the street."

In the early 1900s, ragtime, burlesque, jazz and blues had burst onto the scene, surprising big band musicians and tin pan alley crooners with its popularity. Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Al Jolson, Bennie Goodman and even Ira Gershwin helped make jazz fashionable. One song that almost all the big stars of the era recorded was "Bill Bailey." Arthur Collins recorded it first in 1902.

There are two versions of how Hughie wrote the song. In one version, he wrote it when he was sixteen and just beginning to compose tunes. In the second version, Hughie had a friend named Bill Bailey. While drinking in a bar one night, Bailey began to complain about how his wife threw him out of the house the previous day. Bailey informed Hughie that he was afraid to go home. Hughie told him not to worry and penned the lyrics to his now-famous song. Bailey wrote down the lyrics, took the song home, and showed it to his wife. She wasn't impressed, but did allow Bailey to stay home that night. Truth of fiction? Who knows?  

The song has been recorded by hundreds of musicians. It has become a staple of jazz, blues, swing, and country artists. Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Brenda Lee, Teresa Brewer, Bobby Darin, Sarah Vaughn and Mitch Miller all recorded "Bill Bailey."

Hughie Cannon died penniless on June 17, 1912. He took his last breath in a Toledo, Ohio "poorhouse" infirmary. An article in the Toledo Blade newspaper described his last days: "He was penniless and friendless with the exception of several hospital attaches and the infirmary doctor. Truly a pathetic scene when contrasted to the days when his songs were sung far and wide and their familiar tunes whistled on the street." In his last years, Hughie often wrote his mother begging for money. Ever the loving mother, May always obliged her wayward son.

"Hughie drifted," Richard Robbins wrote, "playing piano in cafes and entertaining acquaintances with his drawings. Frequently, his day ended in a drunken stupor. His death, in Toledo, came 32 days after being admitted to the Lucas County Infirmary. He was 35." The cause of death was determined to be cirrhosis of the liver.

His mother paid for his body to be shipped back to Connellsville where he was buried. His gravestone reads: "Hughie Cannon" and "Bill Bailey."

I love this jazzy version of "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home" by the Westside Syncopators.

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