Original Artist: Artie Shaw
Original Album: Radio Years, Vol. 1 (1938)
Historian: Ellis Godard (Lemuria)
Last Update: 2015-03-31
Though Phish has performed several “sweet” songs – including "Sweet Emotion," “My Sweet One,” "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'," and “Swing Low (Sweet Chariot)” – none are as sugary as the a cappella “Sweet Adeline.” The early history of the song, however, was marked by sourness – and turns in the story of the song mark key dates in the shifting history of the music industry.
Artie Shaw & His Orchestra, “Sweet Adeline”
Harry Armstrong wrote the melancholy music in 1896, the year shellac-based disks replaced rubber records. In 1903, the year 12-inch records debuted, Richard Gerard added lyrics inspired by a cashier who had rebuffed him, and named it "You're the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Rosalie.” However, no publisher would buy the tune – and the music industry at that point was primarily a system for distributing sheet music, not recordings. Gerard and Armstrong finally found a publisher after changing the title and lyrics to honor Italian soprano Adelina Patti upon her farewell tour, a sour sequence of its own. But sales remained slim until the Quaker City Four began performing the song in 1904, the year standardized piano rolls were invented. Popularity grew by 1906, the same year that brought the Victrola, the earliest jukebox, and the first broadcast of music on radio.
The song got high billing when Artie Shaw adopted it as the title-number for Jerome Kern’s 1929 Broadway production Sweet Adeline – a musical that premiered just over a month before the Great Depression started, and closed barely six months later after rave reviews but (like the song) lackluster sales. The once-promising ballad had by then endured a bitter history that tarnished its image. It was finally released on vinyl in 1938, but on a compilation tellingly titled The Radio Years, which pinned it to a passing era. New media wouldn’t denigrate radio for at least another decade, but fortunes were already being made by performers rather than songwriters, and contemporary royalty structures were not yet in place. Armstrong’s loneliness and Gerard’s pining would, for decades beyond, serve as a dated foil to rising comics who performed it, from Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to The Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball.
Appropriately, then, Phish has often added levity to its renditions, which started in 1990, such as performing the song in masks (7/12/92 and 6/24/95), as a challenge to Metallica (5/16/92), as an interlude during which to return a lost wallet (3/31/93), or as yet another record attempt (6/13/95). And unlike “Lawnboy” and “Strange Design," Phish doesn’t present “Sweet Adeline” as a sincere ballad, sung by Page: Fishman sings lead, and hams it up by stretching his lines and syllables. But that stretch ain’t all pork product: Early versions were interrupted by bursts of applause after the chorus, and during the final lines. As the band continued to perform the song in increasingly large rooms, crowd noise became a problem. The band began calming the audience with a ritual huddle, and Trey would hold out his hands as if to say “not yet” several times during the song. Eventually an old boxy radio mic was added, but a trick remained from earlier days: syllables held between lines near the end clued in the audience that the song wasn’t over, and allowed the band to get all the way through... well, almost all the way... most of the time.
The song is often a set or show closer, but has occasionally opened things up, even starting one show (4/25/91). It was kept in regular rotation through 1996, with heavy use during the July 1992 openers for Santana, and the three Europe tours between summer ‘96 and summer ‘97. Notable versions include 10/6/91 (performed from the balcony) and 6/14/94 (between “Guelah” and a delay loop jam). The last performance to date in the U.S. was on 8/13/97 at Star Lake, though the song was offered since then at smaller overseas venues, including 7/1/98 in Copenhagen, and on 8/1/99 at the Fuji Rock Festival. A dozen years would pass before the song again graced the Phish stage on 9/2/11 at Dick’s, closing the second set of a show comprised entirely of songs beginning with the letter ‘s’.
Phish, “Sweet Adeline” – 9/2/11, Commerce City, CO