Charley Straight
Pianist, Composer, Band Leader

By Albert Haim

Charley Straight


Charles Theodore Straight, known as
“Charley”  Straight, was born on January, 6, 1891 in Chicago, Illinois. The 1910 US Census finds Charley, listed as Chas. Jr., born in Jan 1891 and living at 5742 Armour Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois with his father Chas., born in Ohio in June 1864 and his mother Anna, born in August 1875 in Sweden. Following his graduation from Wendell Phillips High School (built in 1904 and designated as a Chicago landmark in 2003) in 1909, Charley, who by all accounts was

Wendell Phillips High School, Chicago, Illinois

a first-class pianist, began a 31-year career as accompanist, performer, composer, and bandleader.

Charley Straight: Pianist, Composer, and Producer of Piano Rolls.

Charley Straight’s first professional job was with Eugene “Gene” Greene (1877-1930), the vaudeville artist known as “The Ragtime King.” Greene and Straight wrote much of the material they performed. Their most popular number was “King of the Bungaloos,”
first recorded for Columbia on February 17, 1911. “King of the Bungaloos,” as performed by Greene, included non-sense syllables, perhaps the first example of scatting on record. [1] 

In 1912-1913, Greene and Straight performed in England and recorded about 64 sides for Pathe. While in England, they had a command performance for the King and Queen. [2] Ian Whitcomb describes the team, "Greene scat singing his way nightly through his big American hit 'King of the Bungalow' to the car-chase rag piano of Charlie [sic] Straight of Tin Pan Alley." [3] Greene and Straight sailed home on the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II from Southampton on March 5, 1913, and arrived in New York on March 12, 1913. [4] The ship manifest describes
        Gene Greene

Charles Straight as male, single, age 22, born in Chicago, Illinois, address in the US Champlain Ave., Chicago, Illinois. It is curious that the birth date is given as January 15, 1890, but the age as 22. Eugene Greene is described as male, married, age 32, born in Aurora, Illinois on June 9, 1881 with residence in the US at 3752 Love Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.

According to US census data, Charley was married in 1913. Soon after, he and Greene went to Australia where they stayed for about six months, returning to the US in 1914. Greene and Straight spent most of late 1913 performing in the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne.

Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne, Australia

According to the newspaper "The Argus" (Melbourne) of November 10, 1913, “...With an infinite capacity for making weird noises he [Greene] combined clear enunciation. At the end of his own songs and stories, he took calls from the audience for songs to be 'ragged' ... Not a little of the success of the turn was due to the piano accompaniments of Charley Straight.” [5] “Ragging” means taking a conventional tune and playing it in the syncopated manner typical of ragtime. From Melbourne, Greene and Straight went to Sidney, where the sheet music for voice and piano of "King of the Bungaloos” was published by Albert and Sons. Greene and Straight had a spectacular success in Australia, witness the fact that they performed for the Lord Mayor of Sidney. [2] Moreover, Greene initiated the popular "Ragtime Contests" in Melbourne where local ragtime artists were presented with medals and cash prizes for the best performance. Charley Straight had such a strong reputation, that an article in the vaudeville trade journal "Australian Variety" includes the sentence, "Mel Brewer did a Charlie [sic] Straight act at the piano." [5] Gene Greene was described as "the most influential ragtime singer to visit Australia in the pre-jazz period." [5] Greene continued performing on the stage until the late 1920s, when he retired to run a restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The place was closed for violations of prohibition laws. Greene attempted a comeback on April 5, 1930 at the Grand Opera House in New York. He had lost his voice by then, and, after the show, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. [1]

In 1914-1916 Straight was based in New York and published songs and rags with M. Witmark and Sons and with Jerome H. Remick and Company. His first rag, "Humpty Dumpty," was published by Witmark in January 1914. Remick published three of his rags in quick succession, "Let's Go" and "Red Raven Rag" at the end of 1915, and "Hot Hands" in February 1916. As his reputation grew, Charley Straight was sought by various companies. He returned to Chicago and first made piano rolls for Rolla Artis, a
subsidiary of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, under the name of Billie/Billy King. It is noteworthy that the cover of the Rolla Artist piano roll # 50298, “Mity-Nice” gives Charley Straight as the composer and Billie King as the performer. Of course, they are one and the same. In 1917, Straight went to work for the “Imperial Player Roll Company” in Chicago as performer, arranger, and musical director. He recorded numerous piano rolls of novelty rags for Imperial as well as for the rival company QRS. It turns out that QRS developed the marking piano, a machine that produced master rolls for player pianos by recording actual performances. The first roll that QRS
released based on a recording in the marking piano was “Pretty Baby” in 1912 by Charley Straight. [6] Some of the piano rolls made by Straight for Imperial were "I'll Come Sailing Home To You" (1917), "Red Rose" (1918), "Everybody Wants The Key To My Cellar" (1919), "Love Nest" (1920), "Carolina Rolling Stone" (1921). The 1919 QRS roll of Charley Straight's "S'more" was mentioned in the June 7, 1919 issue of "Music Trade Indicator." Straight is described as "the man who is putting pep into piano rolls." [7]

On May 31, 1917, Charles Theodore Straight registered for the draft. As seen in the image of the draft card, [8] when asked “Do you claim exemption from the draft?” Straight responded, “Yes, only on acct wife and baby.”  His wife, Clara in the 1920 US Census and Sadie in the 1930 US Census (apparently, the same person), was one year younger than Charley, and the baby, Virginia, was about two years old at the time. Another daughter, June was born in 1918. In his draft card, Straight gives “Waterson, Berlin and Snyder of 81 Randolph Street” as his employer. Waterson, Berlin and Snyder was a publishing company created in 1911 in New York when Henry Waterson and Ted Snyder (the composer of “The Sheik of Araby” and other hits) decided to take Irving Berlin as a partner when he composed his mega-hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. From May 1914 on, the company’s headquarters were in New York City at 224 West Forty-seventh St, in the Strand Theater Building. The company also had a subsidiary office in Chicago, first at 43 Monroe St, and then at 81 Randolph St. [9] Evidently, before he joined the “Imperial Player Roll Company”, Straight worked for a time with Waterson, Berlin and Snyder. This information was not known prior to the discovery of his draft registration card.

In 1919, Straight hired Roy Bargy as editor of popular songs for the production of piano rolls as well as composer of novelty/rag songs for the Imperial Roll Company. At the urging of Charley Straight, Bargy composed,
in 1920, “Piano Syncopations” a set of eight tunes, the most famous being “Pianoflage.” Six of them were produced as piano rolls in 1920 and published as sheet music in 1922. Roy Bargy recorded the six tunes for Victor in 1922 and 1924.  Although the subject is controversial, it is likely that both Roy Bargy and Charley Straight composed “Rufenreddy,’” one of the tunes in the “Piano Syncopation” series. “Perfessor” Bill Edwards writes, “The actual parentage of this piece will likely remain obscured to some degree, since Bargy's collaborator, Charley Straight, more or less may have let Bargy take credit when the piano rolls of the Eight Piano Syncopations were transcribed into sheet music form. It is likely that Straight wrote the bulk of the composition in 1918, and Bargy added many of his individual touches to it in the performance, the end result being that there is some of each of them within.” [10] It is noteworthy that  “Rufenreddy” is listed in the ASCAP data base with Charley Straight as the sole composer. On the other hand, “K’nice and K’nifty”, another of the tunes in the “Piano Syncopation” series, is listed as co-composed by Charley Straight and Roy Bargy. Jim Jams is credited to Roy F. Bargy, while the remaining tunes are not listed in the ASCAP data base. Some of the piano rolls issued by Imperial, for example, "Swanee" (1919; the Al Jolson hit composed by George Gershwin), "Kismet" (1920), "Whispering" (1921), were played by the piano duet of Straight and Bargy. Piano rolls played by duets were not uncommon. Charley Straight also made piano rolls with, among others, Jack Clyde, Max Kortlander, William Hartman, Arnold Johnson, and Burt Franklin.

On November 24, 1919, the “Imperial Three,” a trio consisting of Paul Biese doubling on violin and tenor saxophone, Roy Bargy on piano, and Charley Straight on piano made a test recording for Victor. About a month later the trio issued two sides on Emerson, "O (Oh!) (Intro. Just Like the Rose)" and "Nobody Knows (And Nobody Seems to Care) (Intro. I Left My Door Open And My Daddy Walked Out). [11]

The 1920 US Census finds Charley Straight living at 746 Garfield Blvd. in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife Clara, age 29, and daughters Virginia, age 5, and June, age 2. Charley gives his profession as "manager of piano firm."

Roy Bargy left Imperial in 1921 and joined the Benson Orchestra of Chicago as pianist and leader. Edgar A. Benson was an impresario who managed several bands in Chicago in the 1920s. Charley Straight introduced Roy Bargy to Benson, who had started his orchestra in 1920. One recording of the Benson orchestra featured Roy Bargy and Charley Straight as a piano duet. Bargy and Straight must have been very well known: it is significant that both pianists are given credit on the record label of "Ten Litttle Fingers and Ten Little Toes," Victor 18871, recorded on January 31, 1922.

Charley Straight: Orchestra Leader.

In 1922, Charley Straight left the Imperial Roll Company and led a band at the Rendezvous Café in Chicago where he stayed, on and off, for about four years. The Rendezvous Café was located in the second floor of the Rienzi Hotel on West Diversey Parkway near the corner of North Clark Street. It was first known as Rienzi Gardens, but changed its name to Rendezvous Café in 1923. Other bands that followed Charley Straight at the Rendezvous were Mike Speciale, Louis Panico (formerly with Isham Jones) and Ben Pollack. [12]

The Charley Straight Rendezvous Orchestra in 1925

Charley Straight at the piano
Hannah and Dorothea Williams standing next to the piano

In 1923, Charley Straight and His Orchestra began recording for Paramount. The first recording, in June 1923, was “Buddy’s Habit,” a composition by Straight himself. “Buddy’s Habit” was recorded a few months later, in quick succession, by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, the Midway Dance Orchestra (an Elmer Schoebel unit), and the Bucktown Five. Commenting on this recording by Straight’s band, Mark Berresford writes, “The ease with which the whole sax section take a unison break at fast tempo on “Buddy’s Habits” is quite staggering – a feat few bands black or white could match at this time.” [13] During the period June-December 1923, the Charley Straight Orchestra waxed fourteen sides for Paramount. Some of these were issued by Claxtonola, Puritan, Resona, Triangle and Broadway as the “Frisco Syncopators,” the “Manhattan Imperial Orchestra,” the “Harmograph Dance Orchestra,” the “Broadway Melody Makers” and “The Rendezvous Dance Orchestra.” The last recording for Paramount was "Forgetful Blues, from December 1923. Although the Charley Straight Orchestra

was a dance band, the recordings of 1923 consisted of very jazzy arrangements.

The band was silent, as far as recordings are concerned, from December 1923 to March 1926. Beginning in March 1926 and ending in August 1928, the Charley Straight Orchestra recorded 34 sides for Brunswick. Some of these were issued under the name of “The Clevelanders” and on Vocalion as the “Tuxedo Orchestra.” One pair of recordings, "Minor Gaffe/Hobo Prayers," was issued in June 1926 on Vocalion 15169 as per "The Tennessee Tooters." But this is, in fact, the working Charley Straight Orchestra of 1926. The Tennessee Tooters was a studio band that recorded 22 sides between December 1923 and September 1926 with such excellent musicians as Red Nichols, Rube Bloom, Miff Mole, and Joe Tarto.  The recording of  "Too Busy" from May 23, 1928 by Charley Straight and His Orchestra is of particular interest. Brian Rust notes, "This is not the recording of TOO BUSY recalled by Mr. Rex Downing (trombonist with the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks) in the July-August issue of RECORD RESEARCH, p. 5, as being made by this orchestra., including himself on trombone and Bix Beiderbecke-c. Perhaps some unissued record was made under Charley Straight's direction during early July 1928, when the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, with Bix, was playing an engagement in Chicago." [11]

In 1926, the band travelled for the Music Corporation of America (MCA) circuit of Midwest venues and had a long engagement at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City.

MCA had been founded in the early 1920s by Jules Caesar Stein, a medical doctor. Other bands under contract with MCA were some of the best-known in the Midwest –Paul Biese, Coon Sanders Nighthawks, Ted Weems, Isham Jones, Zez Confrey, Don Bestor, Ray Miller, Jack Crawford. MCA even arranged out of town tours for King Oliver. The Hotel Muehlebach Plantation Grill was the site where the Coon-Sanders

Nighthawks gained national recognition through their late night broadcasts. During 1922-1926, the Straight band also appeared for special occasions at the Blackhawk Restaurant, one of the most desirable venues in Chicago. Charley Straight’s band was at the Blackhawk for two weeks in September 1926, just before the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks opened there and began a regular radio broadcast over WGN. [12]


Charley Straight then had an engagement at the Midnight Frolics at 18 E. 22nd Street., Chicago. The Midnight Frolics had opened in 1921 in the site previously occupied by Freiberg's Dance Hall. The Dance Hall had been operated by Ike Bloom, the King of Brothels, from 1895 until 1914. Beginning in 1921, the Midnight Frolics hired some of the best bands. The shows at the Frolics were lavish, with several acts –dancers, singers, comedians, a master of ceremonies who also sang and did comedy (Joe E. Lewis began his career as MC in 1925 or 1926 at the Frolics), and a dance band. The gala opening night for Charley Straight Orchestra's engagement included, among other highly popular performers, Sophie Tucker. The Frolics was Al Capone's favorite night club. He had a 25 % interest in it. The Midnight Frolics was raided by federal agents in February 1928 and was shut down. It re-opened in the spring of 1928, again with show and dance music provided by Charley Straight. [12]

The Charley Straight band moved to the Rainbo Room at 4812-36 North Clark Street in November 1929. The Rainbo Room had opened in 1922 in the location of the old

The Rainbo Gardens Building  in 2002, shortly before it was demolished

Rainbo Gardens, where Ruth Etting had appeared in the early 1910s, and Isham Jones and His Orchestra in 1918-1920. It was at the Rainbo Gardens that vaudevillians Ted Healy and Moe Howard asked Larry Fine to join their comedy act eventually to become “The Three Stooges."  In 1894, the North Clark Street site was occupied by a small road house restaurant. As Chicago grew the area became urban, a second floor was added to the restaurant, and a beer hall and an outdoor dance floor were constructed. In 1917 the place was known as the Moulin Rouge Gardens. After the war, the Gardens were taken over by two Chicago restaurateurs who renamed it Rainbo Gardens (one of the new owners, Al Mann, had served during World War I with the 42nd "Rainbow" Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.)  In 1921, they redesigned the outdoor gardens and erected a two-story building with a cocktail bar and an immense dining room, the Rainbo Room, which featured a revolving stage to provide continuous entertainment.  The Rainbo Room could accommodate about 2,000 diners at a time and an additional 1,500 dancers. It was shut down in February 1928 following a raid by federal authorities. The Rainbo Room opened under new management in November 1929 with Charley Straight's band as the main attraction for dancers but, shortly afterward, was forced to close because of a fire. [12]

The musical, social, and economic worlds were changing considerably by the end of the 1920s decade, and Charley Straight was one of the casualties. The Music Corporation of America had dropped Charley Straight from his roster of musicians by 1930. The 1930 US Census finds Charley Straight residing at 7300 South Shore Drive, Apt. 305, Chicago, IL, with his wife Sadie, age 38; daughters Virginia, age 15 and June, age 12. Charles Straight is described as “head of the household, white, male, age 39, married at age 22, musician, working in a theatre.” His monthly rent is $88.15. In spite of the great depression and changing musical tastes, Charley Straight managed to work as a musician in the 1930s playing dates on weekends with success. His band was “one of the favorite orchestras at Chicago’s Century of Progress in 1933-34.” [14] In 1937, he appeared in various venues as “Charley Straight and his Great WGN & CBS Orchestra.”

In 1940, in order to make ends meet, Charley Straight took a day job as a water sampler with the Metropolitan Sanitary District (Chicago). Tragically, as he was working over a manhole on the evening of September 22, 1940, he was struck and killed by a passing car. [2, 15]

Charley Straight and Bix Beiderbecke.

Undoubtedly, the most important musician to play with the Charley Straight Orchestra was Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke. After leaving the Jean Goldkette Orchestra at the end of 1924, Bix recorded his own composition “Davenport Blues” in Richmond, Indiana on January 26, 1925 as “Bix Beiderbecke and His Rhythm Jugglers”  (Tommy Dorsey, Don Murray, Paul Mertz, and Tommy Gargano). Bix then enrolled as an unclassified student at the University of Iowa, but, as a consequence of being involved in a fight in a local student hangout, he lasted only for 18 days. Bix then spent most of the month of March 1925 in New York where he stayed with Red Nichols and sat with the California Ramblers. Bix turned up in Chicago on March 23, 1925, deposited his union card with Chicago Local # 10, and soon after was hired by Charley Straight.  The circumstances under which Bix was hired are interesting. According to Eddie Condon via John Steiner, “Charley Straight had heard Bix on the Wolverine records and wanted Bix in his band. Charley appealed to the local board for Bix to come without the usual transfer penalties. Charley told them, ‘Get me a man as good as Bix and I won’t need Bix.’ The board allowed Bix in without penalty.” [16] At first, Bix played with the “relief band,” the band that played from 1:00 am, after the regular band ended its engagement, until 5:00 am. The regular Charley Straight band was a 10-piece band; the relief band consisted of six men, cornet, trombone, reeds, brass bass, piano, and drums. The salary that Bix got as a member of the “relief band” was supplemented by the members of the main band who contributed $10 apiece a week just for the satisfaction of having Bix play with the main band. [16] Bix stayed with Charley Straight for about three months. He left in early July 1925 to join one of the Goldkette outfits playing at the Lakeside Casino in Walled Lake, Michigan. While Bix was with the Charley Straight orchestra, Red Nichols visited him. Red Nichols told Philip Evans on July 4, 1960, "I went to Chicago to see Hannah Williams, who with her sister Dorothea, was singing with the Charley Straight Orchestra. At the time, I was sweet on Hannah. She had been away from New York for some time and I wanted to find out if we still had anything in common? I stayed with Bix at his hotel. I listened to him play with the Straight band, and he escorted me to a few places around town." [16]
< style="font-family: bookman old style;">Noted guitarist, jazz historian/preservationist, and active member of the New Orleans Jazz Club Edmond "Doc" Souchon (1897-1969) attended one of the performances of the Charley Straight band in Chicago in the Spring of 1925. In a letter to Phil Evans, Souchon writes, "The Rendez-vous Cafe catered to young people and you had to bring your own liquor (remember Prohibition?), while they furnished the fixin’s. You could buy an excellent dinner for a very nominal charge and there was an excellent dance floor. When the “big band” went off stage to take a breather, a small group, consisting of sax, drums, a tuba, and a very young looking kid who doubled on piano and cornet continued to play for the customers. Somehow or other my wife and I rebelled against this small group. They didn’t give our ears a rest, and they played some sort of “way out” music hat we couldn’t quite grasp. I hang my head in shame, when I know now that the big band was none other than Charlie [sic] Straight’s, and the little piano-cornet virtuoso was none other than Bix. How I’ve regretted not recognizing this great artist, how I regret not even talking to him! The only consolation is that there were so many other stupid fools at the time that felt the same we did! Now and forever on, I think of Bix as the greatest (next to King Oliver) and I don’t think there is any competition there, because the two were so entirely different. The idioms are eons apart!” [16]


Charley Straight’s musical legacy consists of dozens of compositions, approximately one hundred recordings, and dozens of piano rolls. His piano compositions are still performed, and his records, some of which have been re-issued on CD, [13,17] are played on radio programs about 1920s music. Eighteen of his piano rolls have been re-issued. [18] Charley Straight must be viewed, in part, as a novelty rag composer/arranger/performer, one of several pianists in the late 1910s and early 1920s who “took ragtime in its abstract essence as piano-roll music and expanded it. Developing a whole system of conventions, often based on the harmonic concepts of the Impressionists, they produced a unique style and body of music that became at least as fully realized as the classic rag.”  [19] He has also been viewed as “an important figure in the metamorphosis from ragtime to jazz,” [13] and as the leader of one of the best dance bands in Chicago in the 1920s. “They were an elite outfit, playing the finest hotels and clubs.” [20]

Acknowledgment. I am grateful to Mike Meddlings who invited me to contribute a piece on Charley Straight for his series "WWI Draft Registration Cards in  The present article is an outgrowth of my contribution for the Registration Cards series.


[1] "Popular American Recording Pioneers"  by Tim Gracyk, Haworth Press, Binghamton, New York, 2000.
[2] "
Southeastern Economist," 26th September 1940, Vol. 5, No. 3, page 1, Chicago, Illinois. Courtesy of Robert Perry and Mike Meddings.

[3] "Irving Berlin and Ragtime America" by Ian Whitcomb, Century Hutchison, London, 1987.
[4] Ellis Island Records,
[5] Quoted in "
Playing Ad Lib, Improvisatory Music in Australia : 1836-1970," by John Whiteoak. Currency Press Ltd., New South Wales, Australia, 1999. I am grateful to the author for calling my attention to this reference.
[7] Quoted in "Rags and Ragtime, A Musical History" by David A Jasen and Trebor Jay Tichenor, The Seabury Press, New York, 1978.

[9] I am grateful to a reference librarian of the Chicago Public Library for this information.
[11] The American Dance Band Discography, 1917-1942,” by Brian Rust. Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York, 1975.
[12] “That Toddlin’ Town. Chicago’s White Dance Bands, 1900-1950,” by Charles A. Sengstock, Jr. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2004.
[13] Mark Berresford, liners, “Chicago Rhythm,” Jazz Oracle BDW 8010.
Obituary in the September 24, 1940 issue of the New York Times.
[15] Robert Perry in
[16] "Bix: The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story" by Philip R. Evans and Linda K. Evans, Prelike Press, Bakersfield, CA, 1998.
[17] "Brusnwick/Vocalion Odds & Bits," Timeless  CBC-1055.
"Piano Roll Artistry of Charley Straight," Smithsonian Folkways Records FWRBF44.

[19] "This Is Ragtime" by Terry Waldo, Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, New York, 1976.
[20] "That American Rag: The Story of Ragtime from Coast to Coast," by David A. Jasen and Gene Jones, Schirmer Books, New York, NY, 2000.