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Julie Gardner, 1944: “Are you fer it, Sergeant?”

November 11, 2020

Too many artists in my Accordion Revolution never recorded or didn’t record enough. Julie Gardner is probably the one I would most love to hear. I wrote about her in 2012, most of which made it (seven years later) into the “Jazzing the Accordion” chapter of my book (pages 102-105, if you’re reading along). I’ve learned a bit more recently.

As detailed in that post, Gardner was in the first group of Black artists to perform internationally as part of the global USO military entertainment effort.

Black and white photo of musicians performing on stage. Eleven Black players arranged in back sitting on folding chairs and simple music stands. All are at the same level and no risers. Standup bass is to the left. Rhythm guitar and a few other instruments are partially visible behind the music stands. Julie Gardner is standing in a long dress to the right, in front of microphones with her piano accordion.
Julie Gardner, with a USO Troupe during a performance on the stage of the 130 QM Bn Theater (US A. SC Photograph 16 May 44) 

The photo above is from her 1944 tour in the South Pacific. It would have been similar to a performance that war correspondent Vincent Tubbs described — with the band in uniform on plain folding chairs, no fancy stage risers, and with Gardner singing and rockin’ her piano accordion.

Some of the tunes she played are mentioned by Tubbs (as quoted in my earlier post). I dearly wish we could find Armed Forces Radio recordings of any of them. The closest we may get is others’ (non-accordion) versions of songs Gardner performed on those WWII tours. I just figured the Nat Cole one today, so I’m gathering them all together again here. Julie, I wish we could hear you. (I plan to play a set of these songs on Accordion Noir Radio tonight, breaking our “all accordion” constraint for the sake of musicians lost to history.) 🪗

Pistol Packin’ Mama (The Hurricanes in 1955):

Julie Gardner, singer and accordlanist, also known as the ‘Pistol Packin’ Mamma’ because of her special rendition of that song 

Nov 13, 1943 – Chicago Defender, Willie Bryant and USO Show Wow Servicemen Across Pond

“Are you fer it, Sergeant?” the line from a song Julie Gardner played, would have been from a version of Nat King Cole’s “Are You Fer it?”

“Are you fer it? Are you fer it? Are you fer it, Sergeant? Well, join this song – and groove with me.”

The Southwest Pacific: USO Show, Girl Thrills New Caledonia G.I.’s. By Vincent Tubbs, Baltimore Afro-American, May 6, 1944

Cole’s version swings with, “Are you fer it? You never heard a jam so super fine! Are you fer it? Well then, join with the crowd and fall in line!

International Lyrics Playground

(The A Pile o’ Cole Nat King Cole website says the original Cole version was recorded in 1941, with Nat Cole, piano; Oscar Moore, guitar; and Wesley Prince, bass.)

When [Gardner] grabbed her squeeze box and began to sing ‘Hit that Jive, Jack,’ she locked it up.

Hit That Jive Jack (The Tramp Band. Joe Carroll voc. 1943?):

Julie finished her set with ‘Kow Kow Boogie’ and ‘Don’t Cry, Baby.’

Cow Cow Boogie (Anna Mea Morse):

Don’t Cry Baby (Etta James):

We may never turn up any recordings of Gardner herself, but listening to these “alternate takes” by different artists, we can say as I posted before: “My god, she must have been awesome.”

The only other information that I’ve seen about Gardner is from music historian Antoinette Handy‘s book Black Women in American Bands & Orchestras (1981). Handy interviewed Gardner in 1979 and shared two photos of her.

Black and White Photo of Julie Gardner. Black woman in a dress and jewelry half-smiling holding a 120 bass piano accordion.

Handy detailed:

b. February 8, 1925, Augusta, Georgia 

Most remember Julie Gardner as the girl accordionist who played for a brief period with the Earl Hines Band in 1943 (at the same time that Sarah Vaughan was on second piano). Following this affiliation Gardner attracted attention as a “versatile artist,” playing and singing favorites at clubs and cafes in Boston and New York City. Other bands with which she worked were those fronted by Sabby Lewis, Charlie Barnet, Lucky Millender, and Louis Jordan. Primarily, however, she appeared with her own group (duo/trio) or in strict solo. 

Though best known in the eastern part of America, Gardner’s skillful accordion playing (and her voice) carried her on tours throughout the Caribbean, China, Japan, Alaska, and Green land. Upon hearing her play, critics often commented that it was difficult to distinguish the sound from that of an organ. She was considered a blues singer “through and through” and often hummed in octaves with the accordion. 

Julie was one of the racially mixed six-piece ladies’ band that appeared at New York City’s Jazz Museum in November 1973. For the all-female jam session she brilliantly contributed both her accordion playing and her voice. 

Handy, D. Antoinette. Black Women in American Bands & Orchestras. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981, pg 185-186.
Black and white photo of a band set up in an indoor space. Audience members can be seen standing behind them and sitting on a stairway to the right. Caption: "Calvert Extra Sunday Concerts, Jazz Museum, New York City, 1973. Left to right: Dottie Dodgion, drums: Carline Ray, bass; Julie Gardner, accordion; Renee Berger, trombone; Hilary Schmidt, flute; Jean Davis, trumpet. Courtesy, Milton Fenster Associates."

Remembering all those impacted by wars: Armistice Day, November 11, 2020. If anyone remembers Gardner and her music, I would welcome hearing more.

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