Emperor Norton's Hunch: "Lu Watters Original" or Variation on an Earlier Theme?
Obscure Album Credits and Copyright Registrations Point to a More Complicated Authorship Picture for the Famous Tune
Among the chief protagonists of the New Orleans / Dixieland jazz revival of the 1940s — and making the San Francisco Bay Area a hub of that movement — were Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band (YBJB).
Under the direction of trumpeter Lu Watters (1911–1989), the band came together in 1939 and 1940. The group’s main period of activity and influence extended through the end of 1950, when it disbanded.
Other members of the band included trombonist Turk Murphy (1915–1987) and second trumpeter Bob Scobey (1916–1963), who went on to lead their own bands and who were extremely influential in creating the YBJB sound. This sound is documented in live recordings made across a number of notable residencies in the Bay Area, including at two clubs — the Dawn Club, in San Francisco, and Hambone Kelly’s, in El Cerrito — that were owned or managed by the band.
Dawn Club — 20 Annie Street, San Francisco — next door to the Palace Hotel — 1941/42 and March–December 1946.
Hambone Kelly’s — 204 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito — formerly Sally Rand’s Hollywood Club — June 1947–December 1950.
Avalon Ballroom — 1268 Sutter Street, San Francisco — April–May 1946.
There is some wonderful documentation of Lu Watters, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band and the clubs they played — including photographs, audio links and an abundance of ephemera — via the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Collection, at Stanford University, and at the website Jazz Rhythm.
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OF ALL THE PIECES that Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band played, recorded and made popular, the song “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” holds a special place for many who salute the Emperor. The following recording, from sometime between 1946 and 1950, is part of the Frank Selman Collection, originally collected by Bill Reynolds and presented at Jazz Rhythm.
Although “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” imparts an unmistakable Dixieland feeling, one also hears ragtime. Indeed, there were many rags in the the repertoire of Lu Watters and the YBJB. This may be a clue that helps to unlock the answer to the question posed in the title above.
“Emperor Norton’s Hunch” virtually always is credited as a Lu Watters composition — or is cited as a “Watters original.” Watters died in 1989. Here’s an album cover from 1973. The song — the top track on Side II — is credited to “L. Watters,” presumably with Watters’s OK.
Here’s another album cover from from 1956. The song, the first track, is credited to “Watters” — again, presumably with his approval.
The center label of a 78 released in 1946 or 1947 by Lu Watters’s own West Coast Recordings shows “Lu Watters” as the sole composer. It’s reasonable to guess that he OK’d this credit, too.
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BUT, THE CENTER LABEL of a Mercury Records release from 1950 — one side of a 78 single that is part of a three-single box-set “album” — carries a different name.
Who was Wilbur W. Campbell?
Wilbur Watkins Campbell (1889–1951) was born in Los Angeles to Wilbur Dudley Campbell and Delia Mae Watkins. His one sibling was a brother, LeRoy — known as Roy — five years his junior.
Campbell was not born with the proverbial spoon. But, by the time he reached adulthood, his family was socially respectable and financially comfortable — his father had emerged as an influential curio dealer — and, he quickly found his way onto the society pages of the Los Angeles Times.
It appears that, between about 1911 and 1916, Campbell pursued a vocation as a composer and as a producer of other artistic endeavors. In 1911, the Southern California Music Company published sheet music for Campbell’s “Shoe Tickler Rag” (see page 678, column 1, in the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Musical Compositions) for 1911, here).
That same year, Campbell wrote the music and produced a vocal score for a two-act musical, The Isle of Tuna, with “words by Conly and Clover” (see page 1244, column 2, in the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Musical Compositions) for 1911, here).
A May 1914 wedding notice in the Los Angeles Times had “Wilbur W. Campbell presiding at the piano.”
In 1916, Campbell wrote and published a song with words, “Come Back to Me Old Black Joe” (see p. 163, column 2, in the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Musical Compositions) for 1916, here).
In May of that year, Campbell helped to produce an enormous outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, featuring Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power.
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IN THE MIDDLE of this period — on 18 June 1913 — Wilbur Campbell, then 24, married a true socialite: Marian dePaux Beveridge.
Marian — all of 18 — was the daughter of Philo Judson Beveridge and Daeida Hartell Wilcox Beveridge. It was Daeida’s second marriage. During her first marriage, to Harvey Henderson Wilcox — who died early at 59 — Daeida named the Wilcox’s ranch — just west of Los Angeles — “Hollywood.” Thereafter, she was instrumental in donating much of the land from the ranch, and helping to lay out the plan, for what soon would become the center of the U.S. film industry.
With her second husband, Philo, Daeida went on to help establish much of Hollywood’s civic infrastructure, and came to be known the “mother of Hollywood.” Daeida Beveridge died in 1914.
Alas, the marriage of Wilbur and Marian — which was celebrated at the time — lasted only a few more years. Using anecdotal and circumstantial evidence that her husband had been guilty of carousing and philandering, Marian was able to divorce Wilbur in 1918.
This may have scared Wilbur straight. In the decades that followed, Wilbur — who had a second marriage, to Harriette Ora Simpson, from 1925 to 1936 — was known professionally not as an artiste but as a civil engineer.
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FAST FORWARD thirty years, and our story gets real interesting real quick!
According to the best-available setlists that have been posted online, Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band first play “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” live at the Avalon Ballroom on 27 May 1946.
They play it again, at the Dawn Club, sometime in the fall of 1946.
On 29 August 1946, Lu Watters registers a copyright for the song as an “Unpublished Musical Composition.” A brief description at the front of this volume states: “Unless there is an indication to the contrary, the name under which the registration is entered is understood to be that of the composer of the music.” The description goes on to point out: “Section 56 of the Act of March 4, 1909 (17 U.S.C. 56) provides that that Catalog of Copyright Entries ‘shall be admitted in any court as a prima facie evidence of the facts stated therein as regards any copyright registration.’”
And, yet, in the Mercury Records release of 1950 , it’s Wilbur W. Campbell — not Lu Watters — who is credited as the composer of the song.
Which makes very intriguing, indeed, the following copyright entry for Wilbur Watkins Campbell, from 2 January 1947 — seven months after Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band first played “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” live in May 1946 — four months after Watters copyrighted the song as an “Unpublished Musical Composition” in August 1946 — and around the same time as Watters credited the song to himself on his release of a YBJB recording of the song on his own record label.
Further complicating the mystery…
As mentioned earlier, the Mercury Records 78 single, from 1950, that included “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” credited to Wilbur W. Campbell (Mercury 11050) — this single was part of a triple-single box-set “album,” called Lu Watters Jazz (Mercury C-103).
The inside cover of the box featured a photo of Lu Watters and a liner note that said, in part:
So, on the same physical album from 1950, the official information on the center label of the “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” record itself lists “Wilbur W. Campbell” as the composer, and even lists Campbell’s last name a second time, along with what appears to be his ASCAP number: C-337 — but, the liner note / promotional copy on the box claims that the song is one of “three original compositions…written by Watters.”
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What’s going on here?!!
The credit to Wilbur Watkins Campbell appears in 1950, when Lu Watters still is leading the Yerba Buena Jazz Band and before Watters lays down his trumpet and the group disbands on New Year’s Day 1951.
Indeed, the liner note for the 1950 album, Lu Watters Jazz, observes that Watters “selected” the recordings were included on the album — which suggests that Watters was involved in producing the album and signed off on the published credits.
How and when did Watters find out about Campbell’s Emperor Norton-inspired music?
Campbell’s January 1947 copyrighting of a “partial score” for his Emperor Norton; a light comedy opera suggests that this may have been an earlier work. Was some version of “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” included in Campbell’s score? Or was it a song written for the opera but not included in the score? A standalone? Did Campbell use this title, or some other?
Did Watters and Campbell know one another — or, at least, did they meet or correspond?
Was there a misunderstanding, a disagreement or even a grievance between Campbell and Watters over the creative credit for “Emperor Norton’s Hunch”? Is this explained, in part, by the fact that Watters credits himself as the composer of the song in 1946 or 1947; credits Campbell in 1950; then — after Campbell dies in 1951 — reverts to crediting himself? Did Campbell discover Watters’s creative claim of the late 1940s and respond by threatening legal action?
Was Watters’s copyrighting of the song in August 1946 — just a few months after starting to play the song live — an “offensive maneuver,” a somewhat mercenary effort to take advantage of the fact that Campbell had yet to copyright his own work? Is this explained, in part, by the fact that Campbell did copyright his work only four months later?
Was Watters’s decision to not publish “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” but, rather, to copyright the song as an “unpublished musical composition” a tacit acknowledgment that elevating his authorship claim might increase his exposure to a challenge ?
Is Lu Watters better understood not as the sole composer of “Emperor Norton’s Hunch,” but as a gifted arranger of Wilbur Watkins Campbell’s work — as someone who made the song that came to be known as “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” his own, but who did so with the raw material of Campbell’s original composition?
Many questions remain — but…
It’s hard to imagine that Wilbur W. Campbell would have been credited in 1950 unless — at a minimum — it was he — not Lu Watters — who composed the work that is at the heart of “Emperor Norton’s Hunch.”
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