As a Hollywood composer, versatile musician, and vocal coach for the stars, Phil Moore had an extensive social network that included film celebrities like Lena Horne and Marilyn Monroe, legendary producers such as Quincy Jones, and many other top-notch talents.
Early in his career, Moore made the acquaintance of Dan Burley. Burley was a barrelhouse pianist and journalist who edited various African American publications throughout his career including New York Age, Amsterdam News, Ebony, Jet, and Duke. In addition to writing film reviews (including scathing critiques of Gone with the Wind and Gang War), Burley appeared in several musical films, among them Jivin’ in Be-Bop (1946) and the short Oop Boop Sh’Bam (1947). He also released several records with Dan Burley & His Skiffle Boys and performed with jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Leonard Feather, and Ella Fitzgerald.
One of Burley’s most popular publications in the 1940s was a work capturing the Harlem jive dialect in writing. Under the encouragement of Langston Hughes, Burley created The Harlem Handbook of Jive. Burley’s handbook explains and provides examples of jive talk in the form of poems and stories. First published in 1941 and reprinted in 1944, the handbook sold more than 100,000 copies and was translated into French, Italian, Spanish and Norwegian.
Two works in Burley’s handbook stand out in connection to the Phil Moore collection: “The Jive Night before Xmas” and “The Night Before Christmas (Another Hipped Version).” The second Christmas poem makes a reappearance in Phil Moore’s personal papers under the title “A Visit from St. Nicholas (Apologies to Clement Moore).” Burley refers to having written many versions of the poem, but that this early one from 1939 is cleaner and therefore more appropriate for recording. He states that the music should be “cool, racy with good rhythm.”
Moore doesn’t seem to have recorded “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but in 1953 he released a two-sided Christmas disc with the Phil Moore Four (Marty Wilson, Jimmy Lyons, Milt Hinton, Johnny Letman) featuring “Blink before Christmas”—an abridged version of Burley’s “The Jive Night before Xmas.” The second side featured Moore’s musical adaptation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol titled “Chincy Old Scrooge.”
Although reviewed as a rhythm and blues record by both Billboard and Cash Box on December 12, 1953, Billboard’s reviewer admitted that “Blink before Christmas” was “more for the hipsters than for the rhythm and blues market.” The Indianapolis Recorder from the same date refers to the record as Phil Moore’s debut on Victor:
On one side, the versatile artist narrates his version of that ‘Chincy Old Scrooge,’ in the modern jive idiom. Flip side, Moore does the ‘Night before Christmas’ in modern fashion. He entitled this one the ‘Blink before Christmas’ and Santa is described as a real ‘cat’ with a fleet of ‘trotters.’ This tale ends with everybody joining in to have a big party. These hilarious narrations receive the musical backing of the Phil Moore Four with Moore himself at the 88.
According to Jet, by December 24th, the record had caused two radio bans in the US. The Cleveland Board of Education felt that “Chincy Old Scrooge” was a “harmful influence” for children and radio officials in Pensacola Florida worried that Burley’s jive lyrics were naughty.
Today Moore and Burley’s disc has become a rare collectible and continues to resurface on jazz and novelty Christmas playlists.
Moore’s collection, including the 1939 version on Burley’s poem, was received as part of the BFC/A’s Mary Perry Smith Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Archives. Additional information on Moore and the collection finding aid are available at: http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?brand=general&docId=VAD8293