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Tracks Unwrapped

Big Butter And Egg Man

Exploring the stories behind the music


Now she wants...a butter an egg man
From way out in the west
She wants somebody ... who's workin' all day
So she's got money ... when she wants to play


Big Butter And Egg Man was written by Percy Venable in 1926. There was a time when dairy famers, particularly in America, were clearly well-off. In a paper by George B. Frisvold it states "At the beginning of the 20th Century, the U.S. dairy industry was comprised of millions of small-scale operations producing for their own or for very local consumption. By the end of the 20th Century, the industry was dominated by large-scale producers marketing products via large cooperatives. Improvements in transportation, advances in animal breeding and feeding technologies, and scale economies have allowed the industry to be more competitive on global markets, where there is now active international trade in dairy products. Major government programs to support dairy farm income date back to Depression-era problems facing the industry. Federal programs to support dairy income led to recurring problems of overproduction. .....Yet the industry faces many challenges: greater scrutiny over greenhouse gas emissions, secular declines in milk prices and U.S. per capita milk consumption, reduced viability of small-scale operations, and the rise of plant-based milk substitutes."


The situation has also changed in the UK where in 2012, The Telegraph reported that: "Hundreds of dairy farmers blockaded milk processing plants last night to protest against low prices, leaving them receiving less than the cost of production." There was  a time when young children in the UK had free milk at school every morning in a glass 'milk bottle' a third of a pint in size. They would drink the milk through a straw during morning break and on cold winter mornings, warm it up first on the large, school cast-iron radiators. Those were days when the milk was whole fat and would have a creamy band at the top ('top-of-the-milk') that was a 'treat' on breakfast cereals. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher abolished free school milk in 1970.

So the term “Butter and Egg Man” originally referred to merchants who dealt with eggs and/or butter. In 1925, a play was staged entitled The Butter And Egg Man by George S. Kaufman. It was about a rich man who came to New York "with plans to liberally and exuberantly spend his money on wine, women, and song." Wikipedia tells us: "This play was a big hit and contributed to the popularization of the term. “Butter and Egg Man” came to mean a rich man who freely and ostentatiously spent his money on women. .....  The lyrics to the song describe a woman who wanted a butter and egg man to treat her well and let her play so she doesn't need to work all day. After the popularization of the term, some merchants who sold eggs and butter were upset because it painted them in a negative light. One such merchant, from Minneapolis, even sued the theater and its star for vilifying the hardworking merchants, claiming that when the star sang about them, she did so with “certain tones and gestures to convey that all dealers in butter and egg were men of immoral and licentious character”. 


Record producer Percy Venable wrote Big Butter And Egg Man specifically for Louis Armstrong and singer May Alix. Apparently Earl Hines claimed that Alix would often tease young Louis during performances – he was quite shy and had a crush on May. There were times when Louis, looking at May, would forget the lyrics and the band would shout "Hold it, Louis! Hold it."


Here's Louis and the Hot Five playing and singing the number with May Alix

James Lincoln Ciller, Louis' biographer, says of Louis' solo: "The most important aspect of this solo, and indeed of Armstrong's playing on the record as a whole, is the air of easy grace with which he carries the melody. He is utterly confident, utterly sure what he has to say is important and will be listened to."

In her book Texas Guinan: Queen of the Night Clubs, Louise Berliner refers to a big butter-and-egg man. Describing the El Fey Club she writes:


"One night a man with a slow mid-western drawl came in and cheerfully began dispensing fifty-dollar bills to all the dancers. He bought everyone in the house a drink and made no fuss when he got the bill. Thrilled by this rare phenomenon, Tex decided that her guest needed a proper introduction….

"Folks, here's a live one, a buyer, a good guy, a sport of the old school, encourage him." ……
"What's your name?" asked Tex.
"Nix on the name," said the unknown.
"What's your racket, then?" queried the hostess.
"I'm a big man in dairy produce," he muttered.
"That's applesauce to this mob. I'll send you right in," and Tex shouted,
"He's a big butter and egg man."

Night after night, the big spender came in and ran up large bills. Everyone soon knew him as the big butter-and-egg man, and the expression quickly spread throughout New York…….."

In 1929, Brian Foy directed a film Queen Of the Night Clubs that told the story of a legendary bar hostess and silent film actress with Texas Guinan playing "Texas Malone", a character thought to be based upon Guinan herself. George Raft was a friend of Guinan and this was his first film. The movie has since been lost and no copies are thought to be available. Nevertheless we do have a video clip of Texas Guinan talking here  and short, curtailed video clip of the trailer for the movie here:

Now pretty clothes...they'll never be mine
But what she told me the other day
I hope she don't change her mind


Wiktionary quotes a passage from Mezz Mezzrow’s book Really the Blues: ‘He puffed on the big cigar that he always had stuck in his face and posed back like a big butter-and-egg man.’

Now she wants...a butter an egg man
A great big butter and egg man
From way down south


Which brings us to a couple of other jazz interpretations of Big Butter And Egg Man. The number is usually seen as a 'traditional jazz' standard, but watch this video of Wynton Marsalis playing it:

As one correspondent says: ‘There's no law that says this song has to be at a certain tempo. That's why jazz is all about feeling. One night you might want to play it at a moderate tempo, the next night you might want to slow it down to a ballad tempo. As long as it swings it doesn't matter.’

Now try this version by Scott Hamilton and Rossano Sportiello videoed at an Arbor Records recording session in 2010:

There are fine solos by both the saxophonist and pianist. The number appears on the album Midnight At Nola’s Penthouse released in 2011. The text about the album says: ‘…there is also good humour in this album, with unexpected choices like Come Back to Sorrento (a salute to Sportiello's Italian heritage?) and Big Butter And Egg Man (which ends with one of Rossano's cheeky postscripts).’

Some other versions you might like to try:

Cornetist Bobby Hackett recorded the tune in 1955 with Jack Teagarden (trombone), Abe Lincoln (trombone), Matty Matlock (clarinet), Nappy Lamare (banjo), Don Owens (piano), Phil Stephens (tuba) and Nick Fatool (drums) where Henri Erwig says: "Bobbby Hacket and his band started recording in some Hollywood studio. The eight jazzmen set up and the engineer checked the microphone placement until all parties were satisfied with acoustics of the first tests. When the first take came back over the studio loudspeakers, it was hard to believe, hearing such relaxed and confident jazz, particularily since this group had never played together until a few days before...."

The inimitable George Melly sings the song in this recording although the main part is sung by a sassy Jacqui Dankworth from the album The Ultimate George Melly.

I wonder who the equivalent of a Big Butter and Egg Man might be these days?

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