Joseph Edgar Howard (February 12, 1867 – May 19, 1961) had to entertain, from the time he was a tot literally until the moment of his death, which occurred with him having just taken an encore on-stage, 86 years later! His story may have made-up elements to it, as was often the fashion among early entertainers in order to romanticize their pasts, but vaudeville historians can document 9 wives which by itself suggests an extremely colorful life. Joe claimed to have run away from New York City to Saint Louis at the age of 8 and began his career selling newspapers and singing in saloons. At the age of 11 he was a gifted boy soprano in a touring variety show.
He married four of his vaudeville singing partners, the first being a Toronto vaudeville and Broadway comedienne named Mabel Barrison (April 21, 1882 – November 1, 1912, real name Eva Ferrance) who was a rather pudgy moon-faced veteran in the famed Weber and Fields revues and a discovery of famed Broadway impressario Julian Mitchell, starring in the famed show Babes in Toyland (1903). Clyde Fitch, internationally renowned dramatist also chose her specially for his dramatic play The Blue Mouse. For the last two years of their marriage Mabel was confined to her aunt’s home in Toronto where she fought what was termed “consumption” then but which appears to have been tuberculosis for which there was no cure. Joe was with her but had to leave before she died, allegedly to his need to keep his touring troupe moving through the midwest.
According to some sources Joe had already divorced Barrison before her illness, because he had met and fallen in love with a new partner, 17 year old Ida Emerson with whom he also wrote music. Ida became the only woman admitted to the composer’s group of Tin Pan Alley. They toured all through the midwest repeatedly before landing at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall on 14th Street in New York. Pastor had developed a more family-oriented vaudeville entertainment policy which attempted to smooth the rough edges off of early entertainment acts such as topless swordfighters and naked “tableaux” or living pictures masquerading as high art.
Their greatest hit was a song called Hello, Ma Baby, published in 1899, which quickly became an anthem of the ragtime era and sold over a million copies of sheet music, which was a way to achieve huge amounts of money in the form of royalties in these days before phonograph records became huge revenue-makers. The song was also the very first hit song to celebrate the telephone which had become a revolutionary tool transforming people’s lives through nearly instant communication. It was also performed often in blackface and the original sheet music showed African-American stereotypes on the cover. The first hit record of the tune was made by Arthur Collins, later of the extraordinarily amusing (even when heard today!) comedy team of Collins and Harlan, but it was the sort of song which brought many encores to Howard and Emerson, who then further cemented their gold star status by coming up with a sequel.
“Hello” was followed by “Goodbye” in the form of “Goodbye My Lady Love” in 1904, another smash hit for the songwriting team of Howard and Emerson. In 1909 came another great classic: “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”. Howard, no shrinking violet, claimed to have written the song himself when in fact he apparently did what many “composers” have done through the years — he bought the song from another and less well-known composer. Harold Orlob had worked for Howard at the beginning of the 20th century generating extra songs for Howard’s act and musical productions, a kind of ghost writer whom Howard exploited. There are many many examples of this sort of thing going on regularly when someone had made a big name as a composer and needed more “credits”. Irving Berlin has been accused of pirating Alexander’s Ragtime Band, for example, and many others have been caught over the years claiming to have written songs they never did: Al Jolson, Pee Wee King, Morey Amsterdam, Redd Stewart, et cetera. Orlob, tired of not ever getting credit for his work, eventually sued Howard and won the right to have his name placed on the song instead of Howard’s name. Nonetheless, Howard went right on claiming credit even after the lawsuit! He even used the song as his own as the theme song for his 1940s radio and tv shows.
Over the years came Broadway shows written by Howard and starring him and even more failed ventures. By 1944, Howard, several wives later and well on his way to his 9th marriage (a possible record number of weddings for anyone who was a major force in show business), was a relic of bygone days but he used the mid 1940s nostalgia revival movement to propel himself onto radio hosting a show of old-time songs and performers called “the Gay Nineties Revue” which survived until it moved over to ABC television for several seasons in 1948, hosted by 81 year old
Howard, who lied about his age to get the show! On the program despite his age he could still belt out a pre turn of the century tune with substantial vocal projection while donning top hat and carrying a cane. He continued off and on performing until collapsing in the wings after a curtain call at a benefit at the Chicago Opera House. He was 94 years old! And of course he was still performing “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” as if it were really his own composition after all.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology has the following sheet musics featuring Joseph E. Howard:
JUST A LITTLE SMILE 1901 – Written and composed by JOSEPH E. HOWARD, The Well Known Composer of Many Song Successes. Sung and Introduced with Great Success by JOSEPH E. HOWARD and MABEL MCCANE (one of Howard’s 9 wives!).
JUST A LITTLE SMILE 1901- by Joseph E. Howard. Sung with Great Success by JOSEPH E. HOWARD and MABEL MCCANE.
LOVE ME LITTLE, LOVE ME LONG 1916 – by Joseph E. Howard. Sung with Great Success by ETHELYN CLARK AND JOSEPH E. HOWARD.
SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE IS THE LILY 1917 – Written and Sung with Great Success by The Well Known Composer JOSEPH E. HOWARD of Joseph E. Howard and Ethelyn Clark with lyric by Philander Johnson. Ethelyn Clark was another of his 9 wives.
IN DEAR OLD SUNNY SPAIN 1918 – Written and Sung with Great Success by JOSEPH E. HOWARD, writer of Somewhere In France is the Lily, with lyric by Grant Monroe.
IT WON’T BE LONG BEFORE WE’RE HOME MARCH SONG 1918 – Music by Joseph E. Howard and Lyric by Paul Cunningham. Howard is the “Composer of Somewhere in France Is The Lily, When Our Boys Come Marching Home, etc. and sung by him with great success in his production The Song Bird Review. Cover photo JOSEPH E. HOWARD.
A KISS FROM YOU 1920 – Joseph E. Howard, I. B. Kornblum, Z. Myers. “Introduced in Joseph E. Howard’s vaudeville production Chinn Toi. This sheet music has a lovely lady on the cover who must be a star of the show but she is not named. May be one of the wives of Joe Howard but we cannot be sure. Also the show itself must have been short lived. It was done during a fallow period for Howard which followed World War I and lasted until his revival in the later 1930s and his subsequent biography movie in the 1940s.
I WONDER WHO’S KISSING HER NOW 1947 – Music by Joseph E. Howard. Lyrics by Will M. Hough and Frank R. Adams. Cover photos of JUNE HAVER and MARK STEVENS (as Joseph E. Howard) in the 20th Century Fox pseudo-biography of Howard entitled I WONDER WHO’S KISSING HER NOW. Produced by George Jessel, there wasn’t much in this biopic than rang true in the life of Howard. It was directed by Lloyd Bacon and was a typical Hollywood whitewash biography filled with Howard’s old and mostly forgotten tunes.
The University of Arizona Special Collections Main Library Archive owns the original personal collection of Joseph E. Howard memorabilia, some 16 boxes of personal memorabilia from this unique entertainer.