“I don’t drink. I don’t like it. It makes me feel good.” – Oscar Levant
“I envy people who drink—at least they know what to blame everything on.” – Oscar Levant
Oscar Levant wrote “Drinkie” for the 1932 London stage musical Out of the Bottle, and it’s one of those songs that should not have missing lyrics. Clifford Grey was responsible for writing them; but who is responsible for losing them? I demand answers (though I will try not to lose too much sleep over it).
The bumbling genie storyline of Out of the Bottle was the precursor to the TV show I Dream of Jeannie, and you can read more about it here. Having read the 1900 novel The Brass Bottle, which was the basis for the musical, I don’t know how a song about drinking fits in, but when has that stopped a musical from adding an extraneous song before?
This song is so obscure that the only recording of it I could find was in the private library of rare music collector Frank Bristow of Brighton, Australia. (You can hear that version at the beginning of my YouTube version below.) Frank was kind enough to send me a copy which also contained information about the conductor of the band on that recording, Debroy Somers. Many of the details below about Debroy Somers are derived from the liner notes of Frank’s CD which were written by Arthur Jackson. (No, not the Gershwin lyricist Arthur J. Jackson). This Arthur Jackson (I think).
The Debroy Somers Story
Born William Henry Somers in Dublin, Ireland on April 11, 1890, Debroy (though most of his friends called him Bill) was lucky enough to have a father who was a band leader. He studied music at the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Chelsea, England and the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin.
Debroy Somers was “an absolute master of the oboe, cor anglais, piano, harp, clarinet, saxophone, and xylophone.” – Anonymous contemporary commentator
He twice signed up for years-long enlistments playing in military bands before the end of WWI in 1918. Click here for details of Debroy’s early career.
Debroy (or Bill if we’re being technical) moved to London in 1919 and adopted the name Debroy. It is postulated that the inspiration for that name came from Jamaican singers Debroy Washington or Debroy Wilson (though much more wild speculation is needed in pursuit of the answer to the Great Debroy Moniker Mystery).
With this wealth of experience, Debroy became the arranger for London’s Savoy Havana Band in the early 1920s. He led the Savoy Orpheans for years, and in 1926 he headed out on his own to lead the Debroy Somers Band (aka Debroy Somers and His Orchestra and The Midnight Minstrels):
“Mr. Debroy Somers, well-known to all as the leader of the celebrated Savoy Hotel Orpheans, and one of the finest orchestrators of the day, has resigned his position with the management of the Savoy Hotel, so that he can devote his time to form an organisation for arranging modern syncopated music and a large band of his own.” – Melody Maker, 1926
According to Arthur Jackson, Debroy didn’t want to lead any band, which seems strange for someone who did just that for decades. He claims that Debroy preferred playing classical music and performing as a player in the band, not as its leader. Was it his unique musical abilities that propelled him to the lead position, or just his devilish good looks? His lengthy, successful career suggests the former.
To get a sense of his legacy, here’s 4 1/2 hours of his band on Spotify.
In addition to the band’s voluminous recordings, they played for radio, movies, and West End musicals throughout the 1930s. They even appeared on the telly from time to time. Check out the 4:30 mark to see the band in action.
During WWII, Debroy was again called into action by his country; this time as musical director of the BBC radio show Shipmates Ashore which broadcast to the Merchant Navy.
The Debroy Somers–Gershwin Connection
Not only did Debroy Somers lead the band for England’s premiere performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, he engaged the Savoy Orpheans, the Savoy Havana Band, and George Gershwin himself on the piano! The whole thing was played at the Savoy Hotel and broadcast on the BBC on June 15, 1925. Sadly, no recording was made of that performance, but we’ll always have the snippet of the Debroy Somers Band playing Oscar Levant’s “Drinkie,” so that’s almost as good as Gershwin playing his Rhapsody, right?
Download the PDF of the simplified sheet music to “Drinkie” here: Drinkie