Take a trip with me now to the early years of the Swing Era, 1936-37, to discover a performer so obscure that, to this day, no one knows his real name: Tempo King.
All that we know about Tempo is that he was born in 1915, worked up an act in Florida with the assistance of a pianist who could play a pretty convincing Fats Waller imitation, then came north to New York in the spring of 1936 where he, the pianist, and a pick-up band played during intermissions at a couple of the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. We may never know who his musicians were in-person, because when RCA Victor contracted him to make records for their inexpensive Bluebird label in August of that year, his recording group consisted of pianist Queenie Ada Rubin (so named because, since he was “Tempo King,” she was his “Queen”), three front-line players from the Hickory House—Joe Marsala on clarinet, his brother Marty on trumpet, and the’r highly skilled bassist, Mort Stuhlmaker—and two first-class “ringers” from the world of Chicago Jazz, guitarist Eddie Condon and drummer Stan King, and these were clearly not the kind of musicians who would be working intermissions. They were the front-liners who were taking those 15-minute intermissions.
Considering Ada Rubin’s stride piano skills, which were first-rate even though she couldn’t equal Waller’s deft right-handed runs, it wasn’t surprising that Tempo and his band did a flat-out imitation of Fats’ “Rhythm” group. What was surprising was that it was RCA that signed them, making them lower-priced rivals to Waller’s own records on their full-priced black label discs. Tempo King and his little band sold moderately well for Bluebird, but only had three hit records. Their version of the popular Organ Grinder Swing came in at #12, behind the versions of the song by Jimmie Lunceford (#2) and Benny Goodman. A bit later on, Tempo had his biggest hit, I’ll Sing You a Thousand Love Songs, which charted at #2; then, later still in 1937, To Mary With Love came in at #12. But that was it. After making a few more sides for Bluebird in early January of 1937, they were cut loose, but Vocalion picked up their contract, where they continued to make recordings through the rest of that year. Then, they disappeared as if they had fallen through a black hole.
The story was that Tempo King, who was said to be African-American, was suffering from an undisclosed intestinal illness which eventually took his life on June 25, 1939 when he was only 24 years old. But a photograph has suddenly surfaced online in the last couple of years, and although he appears to have been mixed race, he clearly wasn’t black. He looks Latino, which if you think about it makes sense. Even in the years before World War I, several Cubans migrated to Florida to find better opportunities to succeed, thus Tempo King’s parents may have been among them.
Of course, none of this would be of the least interest to most jazz historians except for one thing: his records are absolutely terrific. An imitator he was, but an imitator with an interesting vocal style who was able to engender a wonderful esprit de corps from his little band. Seldom has either Joe or Marty Marsala sounded as relaxed and inventive as they do on these records, and track after track brings a smile to your face just because they were so good.
I’m sure that Fats Waller wasn’t really thrilled that his own label hired a knock-off to imitate him for their lower-priced records, and I’m willing to bet that he had something to do with their getting the boot before even a full half-year was out. There are some folks posting messages online who firmly believe that Waller himself was the pianist on these records, moonlighting under a pseudonym, but as I mentioned above, Ada Rubin didn’t quite have Waller’s dexterity or his musical imagination, particularly his ability to play right-handed runs with a facility similar to that of Art Tatum. You can do A-B comparisons between them and decide for yourself.
But even if Tempo King died young, one wonders how a marketable talent like Rubin would also disappear into the ether. This mystery was finally solved by a comment you can read below, posted on this article in February 2023 by her nephew. Ada Rubin Roeter, obviously her married name, left the music business as a performer after Tempo King’s death but stayed in it as a promoter. In fact, I found this facsimile of a letter she wrote to a client in 1963, when she was working for the Fred Fisher Music Company, with her signature:
So at least one mystery is solved!
Returning to the Tempo King records, most of them are excellent period jazz in addition to being lively, effervescent performances, so much so that they apparently sold in good quantities despite his having only a few hits. Indeed, the only known CD release of Tempo King recordings was made in the early 1990s by British trad-jazz-bandleader Chris Barber on his own CBC label. This CD was later reissued with the same tracks in the same order by another small CD company. Yet Tempo King Bluebird 78s seem to be constantly turning up, and most of these copies are fairly worn, indicating that they have been played quite a bit. The Vocalions also turn up occasionally, but not as frequently as the Bluebird recordings. Many of these have been posted online for free listening, on YouTube, the Library of Congress website and its affiliate, the Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR), the Classic Jazz Online site and even on the Internet Archive. And they get a lot of hits.
Tempo King did not have a great vocal tone or range, but true to his name his sense of jazz rhythm was excellent and he could scat convincingly—sort of a poor man’s Bon Bon (for those of you who remember Bon Bon, real name George Tunnell, who sang with Jan Savitt’s band in the late 1930s). Joe Marsala’s playing was based on the late 1920s Chicago style, fused with elements of swing, and although he was not on the genius level of Goodman, Shaw or Edmond Hall, he was an excellent improviser. Marty, who seldom recorded without his brother, was a good, crackling trumpet player who fed off the musical ideas of others, in this care not only Joe but also “Ada Rubin.” With a rhythm section of Stuhlmaker, a fine bassist who played in the 52nd Street clubs, along with Condon and King who did not but were excellent ringers, this band really swings. Thus nearly all of the Tempo King records are satisfying in much the same way that Waller’s were.
One thing that kind of surprised me considering Tempo King’s attempts to imitate Waller is that he mostly didn’t record the same songs that Fats did. Another thing I found very interesting is that, after he moved from Bluebird to Vocalion, Tempo King didn’t do the overt Waller imitation on those records. You would think that Vocalion would have been even more eager to have a performer on their label vie with Waller for sales and attention, yet a lot of the Waller-like asides, such as calling his band members by name as well as “little rascal” and “yes, yes, yes!” disappeared. He also seems to have toured more extensively, as some of the Vocalion matrix numbers begin with LA, meaning that they were made in Los Angeles.
So here is a list of the Tempo King recordings I liked the most, a good-sized selection of them which can be listened to online by clicking on each title. Enjoy!
Aug. 1936: Marty Marsala, tp; Joe Marsala, cl; Queenie Ada Rubin, p; Eddie Condon, gt; Mort Stuhlmaker, bs; Stan King, dm; Tempo King, voc.
Oct. 1936: George Yorke, bs repl. Stuhlmaker.
Jan. 1937: Ray Biondi, gt repl. Condon.
No exact personnel data available for post-January 1937 Vocalion recordings.
- A High Hat, A Piccolo and a Cane (Fain-Brown-Akst) 9-11-1936
- I Was Saying to the Moon (Burke-Johnson) 10-15-1936
- That’s the Way It Goes (Muldowney-Pollock) 12-3-1937
- I Would Do Anything for You (Hopkins-Hill-Williams) 8-21-1936
- That’s What You Mean to Me (Carmichael-Evans-Livingston) 9-11-1936
- Bojangles of Harlem (Kern-Fields) 8-21-1936
- Floating on a Bubble (Cliff Friend-Irene Franklin) 1-14-1937
- Alligator Crawl (Waller-Razaf-Davis) 7-28-1937
- I’ll Sing You a Thousand Love Songs (Dubin-Warren) 8-21-1936
- Organ Grinder’s Swing (Hudson-Parish)
- Slumming on Park Avenue (Irving Berlin) 12-10-1936
- Moonlight on the Prairie, Mary (Conrad-Meskill) 1-14-1937
- I Want Ya to Sing (Leveen-Sinning) 12-3-1937
- One Hour for Lunch (Pease-Cavanaugh-Simons) 10-15-1936
- William Tell (Chu Berry-Andy Razaf) 8-21-1936
- Pennies From Heaven (Burke-Johnston) 12-10-1936
- Papa Tree Top Tall (Carmichael-Adams) 8-21-1936
- Sweet Adeline (Harry Armstrong) 11-21-1936
- You’ve Got Something There (Whiting-Mercer) 10-15-1936
- Swingin’ the Jinx Away (Cole Porter) 10-15-1936
- Gee, But You’re Swell (Charles Tobias-Abel Baer) 1-14-1937
- Hey! Hey! Your Cares Away (Cogan-Riley-Johnson) 11-17-1936
- You Turned the Tables on Me (Alter-Mitchell) 11-17-1936
- Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now (Waller-Razaf)
- He Ain’t Got Rhythm (Irving Berlin) 12-10-1936
- Alabama Barbecue (Benny Davis) 11-17-1936
- 25. Through the Courtesy of Love (Scholl-Jerome) 10-15-1936
- Someone to Care for Me (Kahn-Kasper-Jurmann) 12-10-1936
- The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart) (Del Lyon-McIntyre) 12-3-1937
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz
7 thoughts on “Unraveling the Mystery of Tempo King”
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Fascinating. Excellent research you did there.
Ada Rubin Roeter was my Aunt and a fine pianist!
Ah, one mystery solved! Thank you thank you thank you!! But what happened to her? Did she continue performing after Tempo King’s death?
No, she never performed professionally again but remained in the music publishing business.
Thanks again! 🙂
I’ve just discovered digital copies of letters written by an Ada Roeter, who was clearly involved in the music business, from 1964-65 at the University of Pittsburgh website (https://digital.library.pitt.edu/islandora/object/pitt%3A31735069996761/viewer#page/2/mode/2up). Would this be your aunt?