The name suggests a gangster

Muggsy Spanier. The name suggests a gangster from the Al Capone era, but Francis Joseph “Muggsy” Spanier was a musician. Given that the mob controlled all the best nightclubs in those days, and that, like Capone, Spanier was a native of Chicago, they might have crossed paths.

Muggsy played the cornet. The what? It’s a cousin of the trumpet – same basic design but a bit smaller, and the tube is differently shaped, and has a mellower sound. For many years it was the preferred instrument in jazz bands. The trumpet was all a bit bold and, well, brassy.

Spanier was just outside the absolute top flight of jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. He played with the big guys: Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, Bob Crosby, many more. Just didn’t quite crack the A-list, but surely not through lack of talent.

Trumpet playing evolved, and that instrument became king in jazz. The cornet – well, it’s still around, but a minority thing. But, man, does it sound great? Certainly in the hands of Muggsy Spanier it does. This is a 1941 recording, a shellac cutting of a sort of Dixieland-meets-swing version of a gospel tune, “Little David, Play Your Harp”. Actually, no harp is played, but there are lots of horns, played with skill and exuberance. Just listen, especially to Muggsy on the cornet.

  • Artist: Muggsy Spanier And His Orchestra
  • A side: Little David, Play Your Harp
  • B side: Hesitating Blues
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y5972
  • Year: 1941

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Played banjo, wore funny hats

He was, everyone agrees, “a Melbourne institution”. Perhaps because my day job is to teach criminology, the term institution has an ambivalent ring for mine. Her Majesty’s Prison Pentridge, where the hardest criminals in the land were incarcerated behind bluestone walls and razor wire until the 1990s, that too was “a Melbourne institution”.smacka sleeveGraham Francis Fitzgibbon, better known by the nickname “Smacka”, was an institution of a happier kind. He was a jazz musician, a singer and player of the banjo. He made a living doing disxieland and comedy. He established a successful jazz club and restaurant, the first of its kind in Melbourne. Smacka died quite young, in 1979, so I don’t remember him. So I asked some older friends for their recollections. “Played banjo, wore funny hats,” replied one, via an iPhone. Others recalled him as a genial entertainer, a legend in Australian jazz circles, appeared in some ads, a hard-working showman.

He appeared on television variety shows, and also on a peculiar thing called The Penthouse Club, which interspersed gags and music with coverage of the harness racing at Moonee Valley.

“The trots under lights at Moonee Valley” is another Melbourne institution. People flock on there Saturday nights to eat the sort of food they bring to you in hospital, and to lose money. Better than Pentridge, I admit, but I am not a fan of either gambling or horse racing.

But if hosting a TV show based around the trots, and doing ads and corporate gigs allowed Smacka Fitzgibbon to make a living from his banjo, good luck to him. He was an entrepreneurial spirit. This record seems to have been given away at a corporate function, sponsored by a long-defunct Australian tool manufacturer, Daniel Forge. Now that is something from another time – in Australia we no longer make even nuts and bolts, let alone the spanners to tighten them.

The thing is, forget the the silly hats and slapstick. The bloke could play. Have a listen to this recording, a version of “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas”. Smacka played well, sung smoothly, and led a tight band performing Dixieland jazz in fine style.

  • Artist: Smacka Fitzgibbon
  • Single Title: I’m a Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas
  • Track: Side A “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Fable FB-236
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1975

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs