I’m starting out this post to the somewhat unlikely soundtrack of “Mello Cello,” a meditative instrumental piece by Steven Halpern and cellist David Darling. I say unlikely because my own meditation today on cello mellowness is centered around the type of Tin Pan Alley song popular in vaudeville about a century ago—a slightly different style of music.
The tradition of rhyming cello with mellow goes back a long way, at least as far back as the anonymous poem “To my violoncello,” published in a Southern paper in 1819 (“What joy to hear the notes so mellow/Of thee, my aged Violoncello!”). The phrase “mello cello,” with this spelling and often hyphenated as if to reinforce its onomonopiac implications, seems to have really caught hold in American popular culture in the 1910s. The songs I’ve discussed in previous mello cello posts—Charlie Chaplin’s “Oh! That Cello” of 1916 and the Neil Moret/Harry Williams song “Mello Cello” of 1921—were in fact later arrivals on the mello cello scene.
“That Mello-Cello Melody” of 1912, by Otto Fessler and Leo Bennett, could be the earliest of the mello cello songs. When Jos. W. Stern & Co. of New York announced it, it was touted as one of four new hits that were starting “on the track of popularity.” A March 23,1912 ad in the New York Clipper also gives the lyrics for the chorus:
“That mello ’cello melody,
That sad and mournful harmony.
I don’t remember all of it,
But there’s one little “touchy” bit
That lingers in my memory.
(This is how it goes) (Hum),
I find myself a-sighing
And I just can’t keep from crying
When I hear that mello ’cello melody.”
Another plug for the song, on the back cover of a 1917 Stern song publication, also includes a sample of the music for the chorus:
This sheet music excerpt is especially tantalizing, since I have not been able to locate either a full piano score or a sharable recording of the song. To compensate, let me tell you about another, even earlier popular cello song that I did find several recordings of. It’s called “That Fellow With the ’Cello Rag,” or “Cello Rag” for short, with words and music by Victor H. Smalley.
In early 1911 it was in the repertoire of the vaudeville artists such as Luna Cooper and the Cameron and Devlin duo, who performed it along with “Tipperary Twirl” and another Smalley song, “Fussy Rag.” Billy Murray recorded it that year with the American [vocal] Quartet (listen here). Here are a few choice excerpts from the chorus to capture the storyline :
“Hear that cello softly moan, kiss me honey before I roam,
“That cello sounds so mellow, I just can’t resist that fellow,
So you better take me home sweet home…”
“…that mellow rag, that fellow with the cello rag”
Several hummed imitations of cello playing follow, the second one happening after “Goodness gracious, hear him play!” Here I can't resist pointing out that in “Oh! That Cello” Chaplin follows up on the “Cello Rag” scenario with one possible outcome: the girl does fall for the cellist, and they are soon serenaded by their newborn’s not-so-mellow bellow.
The success of “That Fellow With the Cello Rag” may have inspired another 1912 song, “Honey, Make That Fellow Play That Cello Again!” with words by Stanley Murphy and music by Henry I. Marshall, and published by Jerome H. Remick & Co. of New York and Detroit. In this song, the girl is swept up not in revelry of the ragtime craze then current, but by the emotions evoked by a classical cello melody. After Willie has revived his swooning Mable, she declares, “Honey! Hear that fellow play that cello melody, Can’t you hear its mellow ring?” I couldn’t find a recording of this one (either), but luckily the lyrics tell us just which cello melody so affected Mable at the table: the “Melody by Rubinstein.”
So here I’ll close, while I’m able,
Listening to Piatigorsky, at the table.