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Celebrity for the week ending
Saturday, 26 August 2006

John Steel (1895-1971),
American tenor,
featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 and 1920,
and the Music Box Revue of 1922 and 1923

John Steel
John Steel

(photo: unknown, probably New York, circa 1920)

John Steel (sometimes Steele) was born at Montclair, New Jersey, on 11 January 1895, the son of Scottish and Irish parents. As a boy he is said to have sung in several churches in New York and Brooklyn. His first notable appearance on Broadway was in 1918 when he was chosen to play in the short-lived New York production of the London hit musical play, The Maid of the Mountains. The cast also included Sidonie Espero whom Steel married in 1920, shortly after which a son was born.

Meanwhile the young tenor was picked by Florenz Ziegfeld jnr, to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, which opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre, New York, on 16 June 1919. One of the hits of the evening, he scored heavily singing three songs: 'My Baby's Arms,' 'Tulip Time' and Irving Berlin's 'A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.' At about this time Ziegfeld is said to have paid Steel $3,500 a week.

Steel's marriage foundered during 1921 although the couple were not divorced until 1924. By then he had appeared successfully in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920, Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic (New Amsterdam Roof, New York, 1920), and in Irving Berlin's Music Box revues of 1922 and 1923. In the latter he was one of the sextet of singers, the others being Florence Moore, Ivy Sawyer, Joseph Stanley, Grace Moore and Frank Tinney, all dressed in historical costumes, for an ironic rendering of the latest novelty song, 'Yes, We Have No Bananas.'

John Steel


John Steel featured on the song sheet cover of
'Rose of My Heart' by Neil Morét, with lyrics by Weston Wilson,
which he sang in Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic,
New Amsterdam Roof, New York, 1920.

Mr Steel recorded 'Rose of My Heart' for the Victor label (18724) on 10 September 1920.

(photo: unknown, probably New York, circa 1920)

During 1925 and 1926 Steel fulfilled a lucrative vaudeville contract.

John Steel subsequently married the professional violinist Mabel Stapleton and together they appeared in a series of concerts. By 1929 Steel had made a number of radio broadcasts, too, but he became embroiled in a sensational divorce suit in which he was named as correspondent. Walter P. Inman, a Duke's tobacco magnate, accused his wife Helen Garnet Inman of misconduct with Steel. During the ensuing courtroom proceedings the lovers' correspondence was read, causing embarrassment to all parties. The second Mrs Steel, then in Paris, sued her husband for divorce in April 1930 when it transpired that they had lived apart since 1927.

The year 1927 found Steel in London, where he appeared as John Brown opposite the soprano Helen Gilliland in the musical, Castles in the Air (Shaftesbury, 29 June), which opened to mixed reviews and expired after just 28 performances; however, the show toured in the United Kingdom for the remainder of the year and well into 1928. It was with delight that he visited Scotland for the first time because, his favourite pastime being golf, he was able to play at St. Andrews.

'Steel needs no microphone to project the heart-throbs in his voice,' reported one contemporary newspaper, which also recorded the fact that, during leaves of absence from the Army during the First World War, he had studied singing under Jean de Reske [i.e. Jean de Reszke] in Paris.

It was at about this time that Steel met and married his third wife, the former dancer Jeanette (Janet) Hackett, who encouraged him in his flagging career, and by whom he had a son, Donn Raymond Steel (1930-1993). After further vaudeville appearances in the early 1930s John Steel worked for another few years in cabarets and clubs in New York, Chicago and other major United States cities. In spite of being well received, however, he filed for bankruptcy in New York during August 1938, his petition showing liabilities of $40,070 against assets of $350.

John Steel died aged 76 in New York City on 25 June 1971.

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The majority of John Steel's forty or so known published recordings were made for the Victor label in New York between 1919 and 1923; the remaining three were made for Columbia in London in 1927. The following is a selection.

'My Baby's Arms' by Joseph Tierney, with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, from Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 (Victor 18611, mx 23078, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, June 1919; by courtesy of The Internet Archive)

'A Pretty Girl is like a Melody' by Irving Berlin, from Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 (Victor 18588, mx 23026-5, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 30 June 1919; by courtesy of The Internet Archive)

'Tulip Time' by Dave Stamper, with lyrics by Gene Buck, from Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 (Victor 18588, mx 23027, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 30 June 1919; by courtesy of The Internet Archive)

'The Love Nest' by Louis A. Hirsch, words by Otto Harbach, from George M. Cohan's production, Mary (Victor 18676, mx 24106-2, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 12 May 1920; by courtesy of The Internet Archive)

'Girls of My Dreams' by Irving Berlin, from Ziegfeld Follies of 1920 (Victor 18687, mx 24319-4, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 27 July 1920)

'Tell Me, Little Gypsy' by Irving Berlin, from Ziegfeld Follies of 1920 (Victor 18687, mx 24318-3, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 27 July 1920)

'Whispering' by John Schonberger, Richard Coburn and Vincent Rose (Victor 18695, mx 24459-3, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 2 November 1921)

'Say It With Music', written by Irving Berlin, from Music Box Revue of 1921 (Victor 18828, mx 25740-3, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 2 November 1921)

'Sally, Won't You Come Back', by Dave Stamper, with lyrics by Gene Buck, from Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, (Victor 18813, mx 25566-4, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 21 December 1921)

'Will She Come from the East?', written by Irving Berlin, from Music Box Revue of 1922 (Victor 18990, mx 27094-3, recorded New York or Camden, NJ,, 28 November 1922)

'Lady of the Evening by Irving Berlin, from Music Box Revue of 1922 (Victor 18990, mx 27079-7, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 28 November 1922)

'When the Gold Turns to Grey' by G W Eichert and M Abrahams (Victor 19089, mx 27556-2, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 19 February 1923)

'Just an Old Love Song' written by Victor Schertzinger, with lyrics by Sid Grauman, for Douglas Fairbanks's silent film, Robin Hood (Victor 19089, mx 27959-6, recorded New York or Camden, NJ, 1 June 1923)

'Latavia (Hail to the Prince)' by Percy Wenrich, lyrics by Raymond W. Peck, from Castles in the Air, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 29 June 1927 (Columbia 9191, mx WA-2461-2, recorded London, 24 February 1927)

'My Lips, My Love', duet with Helen Gilliland, by Percy Wenrich, lyrics by Raymond W. Peck, from Castles in the Air, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 29 June 1927 (Columbia 4289, mx WA-4949-1, recorded London, 27 February 1927)

'The Rainbow of Your Smile' by Percy Wenrich, lyrics by Raymond W. Peck, from Castles in the Air, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 29 June 1927 (Columbia 4289, mx WA-4950-1, recorded London, 27 February 1927)

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© John Culme, 2006