Groucho Marx the musician? Screen legend, but......?

Feb 2, 2009 (Updated Feb 8, 2009)

The Bottom Line It is often forgotten that Groucho was also a talented musician in his own right.

The notable film critic James Agee considered Groucho Marx " the funniest satirist of the century ". Sartorially immaculate, with his greasepainted striped eyebrows / mustache, and round wire glasses, Groucho became one of the screen's most enduring comic characters and one of the most recognisable faces of the 20th century. However, for at least the first six years of his show business career, Groucho was actually a professional singer.

The ringmaster of the Marxian carnival of comedic chaos and mirth making musical entertainment - Julius Henry Marx was born on October 2, 1890 in New York. The fourth son of French and German Jewish immigrants, Sam and Minnie nee Schoenberg ( Manfred, born in 1885, sadly died in infancy ). His earliest music-making was singing along in family musical evenings, and then as a boy soprano in a choir:
" I sang in a Protestant church on Madison Avenue every Sunday and got a dollar for it ".  ( Groucho )
According to Harpo, Groucho was " quite an accomplished boy soprano ".

Groucho left  school at 13, just after his bar mitzvah, to work as an office boy; at 14 he started as a boy singer on the vaudeville touring circuit, having already sang as a soloist at the Star Theater on 102nd Street ( he had already memorised his uncle Al Shean's songs ). In 1905, he answered an advert in the " New York World ", and secured the job as the third singer in The Leroy Trio, at $4 a week plus room and board. They played dates in Grand Rapids, Colorado and Cripple Creek ( which is where Leroy and Johnny Kramer absconded with Groucho's money. Stranded, Groucho got a job in a movie theater - he would sing to slides projected on the screen, his first song was " Love Me And The World Is Mine ".

After mother Minnie sent him money for the return train fare to New York, Groucho did a double act with an English singer and beauty named Lilly Seville, and they played the circuit in Texas at $11 a week. After seven weeks, Lilly ran off with the lion-tamer on the same bill, and once again, Groucho lost all his money and was stranded ( he soon learnt to carry his money in a " grouch bag " around his neck, a common practice with vaudevillians ).  His mother came to his rescue and then found him a job as the juvenile singer in a touring production of a play called " The Man Of Her Choice " - Groucho sang three Jewish songs. There were many other singing engagements  of a similar nature after this.

A very scarce songsheet from " The Man Of Her Choice " was auctioned on eBay last month. The song was called " Mary Moore ", words by Edward M. Sammonds, music by N. Harris Ware, and performed and sung by " Master Julius Marx " ( age 14 ). This incredible rarity sold for $5900! Groucho himself would have been astonished ( and pleased ) . It would be advisable to purchase Marx Brothers memorabilia both for enjoyment and investment potential.  

Minnie was determined her sons would go on the stage, and in 1909, the first incarnation of the Marx Brothers act comprised Julius ( as he was still known ), brother Milton ( Gummo, born in 1892 ), and Mabel O' Donnell, and they were called The Three Nightingales:
" We played some pretty good theaters because Mabel was a pretty good singer....Her big problem was that she always went off-key " ( Groucho )

Gummo recalled, " She was mad about Groucho and used to chase him all over the place....mother bought her a wig ( to cover her glass eye ) ". Harpo joined them in late 1909, and they became The Four Nightingales:
" We would sing what were the popular songs of the day - until we sang them. We discovered that Harpo had no ability whatsoever ( as a singer ). ( Gummo )
Groucho recollected that another problem was that Gummo's voice was still changing, " so although he was supposed to be a baritone, part of the time his voice sounded tenor ". Sadly, Mabel had to be let go, and was replaced by Lou Levy, " who had a nice tenor voice ".
Mother Minnie and Aunt Hannah joined the act shortly after, because " acts were paid by the head and we could get more money with six people " ( Gummo ), and they became The Six Mascots.

By the end of 1911, the act had gradually developed into a school comedy act, which were then in vogue - this really marked the transition from primarily music to comedy, although music was always important. The Six Mascots had played in Denison, Texas, and went down so well, the manager asked them to play a second night, but only if they could put on a fresh act. Groucho had an inspired idea:
" Why not put on " School Days " ? ...I had to follow the act clear across Montana and I know it by heart ".

Their new comedy routine was so popular, that it became a permanent part of their act. By late 1912, Chico finally joined the act, and they were now billed as the Four Marx Brothers ( Gummo left in 1916 to enlist in the army, and was replaced by Herbert ( Zeppo, born 1901 ) - so Gummo never appeared in their films, but is fondly remembered by the reminiscences of others, the old faded theater playbills and photographs.

After years of grueling tours, the brothers finally made the big-time with their New York Broadway debut in the 1924 hit musical comedy revue, " I'll Say She Is ". They became the toast of Broadway and the darlings of the powerful New York stage critics - they were stars.

Groucho's comic genius sprung from his verbal dexterity, sardonic repartee and unequalled mastery of the humorous ad-lib, pun and insult. During a 1928 performance of Animal Crackers, George Kaufman, the show's distinguished Pulitzer Prize winning writer, said to Alexander Woollcott, Broadway's most influential critic, " Be quiet a minute, Alex. I think I just heard one of the original lines ".

It was not just good fortune that Groucho was acclaimed as one of America's greatest humorists - in private, he was a voracious reader:
" I was always a reader. I educated myself...since I didn't finish public school ". Harpo wrote in his memoirs that, " Groucho was already turning into a bookworm at the age of eight "....Groucho had to have privacy to read. For hours at a time, he would read in his Elgin roadster, parked on 33rd Street ( the family had moved to Chicago in 1910 ) ".

Groucho authored several books of memoirs, articles and plays; he co-wrote with Norman Krasna the 1937 film The King And The Chorus Girl, and the 1948 Broadway play, Time For Elizabeth. Groucho applied his facility with words to the craft of songwriting. The program for their revue Home Again at the Oakland Orpheum on October 3, 1915, credited the Four Marx Brothers as the writers of the songs " Don't Say Goodbye ", " Villa On The Hudson " and " Sweet Kentucky Lady ".
They are also credited as the writers of " Sailin' Away On The Henry Clay " and " Walking Thru Lover's Lane " on the Home Again songsheets. It is likely that they wrote many more original songs for their shows.

In 1951, Groucho recorded his own song ( with music by Harry Ruby ), " Omaha, Nebraska " :
" There's a place called Omaha, Nebraska / In the foothills of Tennessee / My sweetie told me that / Someday she'll meet me at / The corner of Delancy Street and Avenue B / ....In the heart of Omaha, Nebraska / Where the best things in life are free / In the foothills of Tennessee /

Musically, Groucho's main contribution was as the lead singer of the big musical comedy songs in their films. He adopted a " talk-singing " style to emphasise the humorous lyrics - he was not trying too hard as a serious singer. When he did try, he showed off an acceptable and pleasant tenor voice. Frank Sinatra, however, was not too impressed:
" The only thing the man can't do is sing ".
But E.Y. " Yip " Harburg's two favorite singers of his songs were Bert " Cowardly Lion " Lahr and Groucho Marx.

During his vaudeville years, Groucho regularly sang the famous tenor aria, " La Donna E Mobile " ( all women are fickle ) from Verdi's Rigoletto. He also had a deep love for the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan - he especially admired the witty lyrics of W.S. Gilbert. In 1960, Groucho fulfilled a long-standing ambition - he acted and sang the principal role of Ko-Ko in a television production of The Mikado. Was he not just courting a more grotesque version of Margaret Dumont, when he romanced Katisha with " Willow, Tit-Willow " ?

Although he never performed in their films, Groucho did play the piano occasionally on stage. At a 1913 show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the brothers brought the house down with a " six-hand, three-key version of " Waltz Me Around Again, Willie " - Chico on the stool, me sitting on Chico's shoulders and Groucho behind us, reaching his arms around Chico like tentacles, and all of us singing " ( Harpo ).
They followed this with a rendition of " Peasie Weasie " ( a song with endless verses which Minnie had bought for $50 ) on their mandolins - the ovation was so great they were retained for the week.

In the 1915 program for their school reunion revue, Home Again, the credit read that Leonard Marx, was assisted by Julius Marx in the piano speciality. In their 1924 smash, " I'll Say She Is ", their Napoleon and Josephine skit featured both Groucho and Chico on the piano. This routine was recreated in animation in the 1970 ABC T.V. special, The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians. Groucho's companion in his later years, actress Erin Fleming, recalled that he was a very methodical man and would always play the piano every evening from 6 pm to 7 pm. She also complained that, " He was the biggest tight-wad who ever lived " - Groucho was financially wiped-out by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and although he sooned earned another fortune as their film career flourished, he was always " careful " with his money. He was however very generous with charitable donations and helped out Chico and Zeppo numerous times.

Groucho began to play the guitar and mandolin when he was one of The Six Mascots:
" I played the mandolin, Groucho the guitar and Harpo strummed the harp. He could only play a few chords at this time ".  ( Gummo )

In their movies, Groucho's instrumental ability was secondary to the undoubted  musical talent of Chico and Harpo. In Monkey Business, Groucho playfully strummed a guitar in a scene with Thelma Todd. In Go West, he played rhythm guitar and sang a very nice accompaniment to John Carroll's rendition of " Riding The Range ". As a guitarist, Groucho's big showcase was in Horse Feathers, when he sang his segment of the film's big song to Thelma Todd, to his own guitar accompaniment:
" Everyone says " I love you " / But just what they say it for I never knew / It's just inviting trouble for the poor sucker / Who says " I love you ".

The song's lilting introduction is expertly finger-picked, and the chord changes and inversions are smooth and crisp - he really was a competent guitar player. In 1954, Groucho was interviewed live from his Beverly Hills home by Ed Murrow on his Person To Person T.V. show. Groucho played the guitar and sang a charming duet with his young daughter, Melinda, of " Put Your Head On My Shoulder " - and confirmed his ability to play and sing.


Groucho's formidable verbal felicity and wit were given total expression on his long running radio and T.V. quiz show, You Bet Your Life, which ran from 1947 to 1961. In addition he made many film and television appearances as a very popular guest star. During the war, he along with his brothers visited camps and hospitals in the United States, after it, he continued  his charitable work. In May, 1972,  Groucho was honored by the French Academy and presented with the prestigious Commandeur des Arts et Lettres at the Cannes Film Festival, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the motion pictures and for his literary work. That year, Groucho played a sold-out one man show at Carnegie Hall, which was recorded and  successfully released as a record album, An Evening With Groucho Marx. In June 1974,  there was a Marx Brothers revival when Animal Crackers received it's second premiere in New York, after thousands of college students signed a petition - it had been unavailable for over 20 years because of a legal dispute. Groucho proudly boasted that he was an even bigger star than in his heyday. He subsequently received a special Oscar. Groucho made his final appearance on the Bob Hope Show in 1976. He died of pneumonia after a stroke in 1977 ( Gummo pre-deceased him by six months, Zeppo died in 1979 of lung cancer ) .    


1. AT THE CIRCUS ( 1939 )
" Lydia, The Tattooed Lady " ( E.Y." Yip " Harburg, Harold Arlen )
" Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, have you met Lydia? Lydia The Tattooed Lady /
She has eyes that folks adore so / And a torso even more so / Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopedia / Oh Lydia the queen of tattoo / On her back is the battle of Waterloo / Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus crew / And proudly above waves the Red, White and Blue / You can learn a lot from Lydia! / La la la la ".

Groucho as lawyer J. Cheever Loophole, sings one of his signature songs....everybody sing along now.....
This song was also re-recorded by Groucho in  a 1947 radio broadcast with Bing Crosby and John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra, and is available on the 2005 CD Hooray For Captain Spaulding, which is highly recommended.

" Hooray For Captain Spaulding " ( Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby )
" Hooray for Captain Spaulding! The African explorer / Did someone call me snorer? / He went into the jungle / Where all the monkees throw nuts / If I stay here I'll go nuts! / Hooray, hooray, hooray! ".

Groucho as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, sings his other signature tune - this was used as the theme song for his quiz show You Bet Your Life, and so became  strongly identified with him. In 1965, Groucho was reunited with " the Fifth Marx Brother " ( his own words and a great compliment to ) , Margaret Dumont, in a T.V. appearance on the Hollywood Palace show, when they recreated the entire " Hello, I Must Be Going " / " Hooray For Capt. Spaulding " scene, to the delight of their fans. Sadly, Margaret Dumont passed away a fortnight later. This song was re-recorded by Groucho in 1951 with the Ken Lane Singers and Orchestra conducted by Victor Young, and is also on the Hooray For Capt. Spaulding CD.

3. HORSE FEATHERS ( 1932 )
" Everyone Says I Love You " ( Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby )
" I'm Against It " ( Kalmar, Ruby )
 " Your proposition may be good / But let's have one thing understood / Whatever it is / I'm against it ".

Groucho, as Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff, in mortarboard and gown, delivers his anti-establishment song to his assembled students. Groucho always had a huge cult following among college students.

4. DUCK SOUP ( 1933 )
" These Are The Laws Of My Administration " ( Kalmar, Ruby )
" The last man nearly ruined this place / He didn't know what to do with it / If you think this country's bad off now / Just wait till I get through with it! ".
" Freedonia's Going To War "
" Oh hidey, hidey, hidey, hi / Oh hidey, hidey ho / To war we're going to go.....They got guns / We got guns / All God's chilldrun got guns ".

Groucho, as  Freedonia's President Rufus T. Firefly satirises war propaganda. Their films were banned by the Italian and German fascist regimes of their day.  

5. THE BIG STORE ( 1941 )
" Sing While You Sell " ( Hal Borne, Hal Fimberg, Sid Kuller )
" Bring on the girls! Strike up the band! Flywheel's in command! "....
You've got to sing while you sell, sing while you sell / Get that money in the till / Give the customers a thrill ".

Groucho as detective Wolf J. Flywheel enthuses his employees.

6. COPACABANA ( 1947 )
" Go West, Young Man! " ( Kalmar, Ruby )
" Before you go to Buffalo, to Baltimore or Borneo / To Eastern Pennsylvania or Japan / Go West, young man!....If you want a jackass / There are plenty of them there! ".

This very fuuny song was cut from Go West - however, it was sung by Groucho in the 1947 film Copacabana, which also starred Carmen Miranda. Also recorded in 1951, and available on the " Capt. Spaulding " CD.

7. HOLLYWOOD PALACE ( March 14, 1964 )
" Dr. Hackenbush " ( Kalmar, Ruby )
"  For ailments abdominal, my charges are nominal / Though I'm great, for I've a rate for tonsilectomy / Sick and healthy, poor and wealthy / Come direct to me / Oh God bless you they yell / When I send them home well / But they never, no they never / Send a cheque to me ".

On the live on-stage try-out tour for scenes from their next film, A Day At The Races, this song was a big hit with the audiences, but was inexplicably omitted from the finlshed film. Fortunately, it was revived by Groucho for television. It was also recorded separately in 1951 - and is now available on the 2005 " Hooray For Captain Spaulding " CD.
8. PERSON TO PERSON ( 1954 )
" Put Your Head On My Shoulder "
Groucho and his daughter Melinda sang a charming duet on this T.V. show. The complete interview and performance is available on a fairly recent DVD box set The Marx Brothers Collection ( not the movies ).

9. GO WEST  ( 1940 )
" Riding The Range Together " ( Gus Kahn, Roger Edens )
" Riding the range together / Oh we ride and ride / We don't know where / But the horses do the work / So we don't care / It's clippity-clop, just clippity-clop / Together ".

Groucho as Quentin S. Quale, with a little help from Chico, sings along with John Carroll, in a very amusing number.
" Omaha, Nebraska " ( Groucho, Harry Ruby )
This hummable song is available on the " Hooray For Capt. Spaulding " CD. It was one of his best vocal recordings.
11. THE DICK CAVETT SHOW ( 1969 or 1971 )
" Show Me A Rose "  ( Kalmar, Ruby )
" Show me a rose / I'll show you a girl who cares / Show me a rose / Or leave me alone / Show me a rose / I'll show you a stag at bay / Show me a rose / Or leave me alone ".

Groucho sang this slow number live on T.V. It is also on the above CD. Another fine vocal on a rather melancholy song.
" Father's Day " ( Harry Ruby )
" It really was a pleasure to fuss / For according to our mother / You're our father / And that's good enough for us ".
An amusing parody of the sentimental and maudlin songs that were popular for a long time - the slightly irreverent lyrics sung over a lachrymose tune. It too is on the same CD.

13. DOUBLE DYNAMITE ( 1951 )
" It's Only Money " - Groucho and Frank Sinatra duet.
" It's only money, It's only dough / And the people who crave it / Worship it and save it / All come to know / You can't take it with you / When you go ".

A rare and all too brief duet with the great Frank Sinatra. This film comedy also starred Jane Russell - Frank played a bank clerk accused of theft.

14. YOU BET YOUR LIFE ( 1960 )
" There Is Beauty In The Bellow Of The Blast " ( Gilbert & Sullivan )
" There's a beauty in extreme old age / Do you think that you're elderly enough / Information I'm requesting / On the subject interesting / Is a maiden all the better if she's tough? ".

Groucho and his daughter Melinda sang Ko-Ko's and Katisha's droll duet from The Mikado. Groucho certainly knew how to flatter the ladies.

15. MR. MUSIC ( 1950 )
" Life Is So Peculiar " - Groucho made a guest appearance in this Bing Crosby movie, and he performed a skit on this song with Bing.

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