Sunday, July 7, 2013

Uncle Jim - a showbiz survivor

The tail end of the Jazz Age yielded a lot of interesting music on some of the smaller labels, much of it straddling the line between polite dance and actual jazz.

One interesting series of recordings from 1932 comes from an aggregation going by the name Sid Peltyn and his Orchestra. But apart from the music is an interesting story tangentially related to the music.

The following recording, "Ah! But I've Learned" is pretty pleasant, standard stuff. The interesting part stems from the vocalist, Jim Harkins.

I was able to uncover other recordings of the period with vocals by Harkins, including this one with Harold Mooney and his Orchestra.

Apart from having an interesting voice, which kind of sounds like Bennett Cerf might have if he had sung tenor, Harkins has a compelling story, due to an association with radio comedian Fred Allen.

Let's take a look at this story from the Pittsburgh Press from Aug. 8, 1947.

Fred refers to "Uncle Jim" on several broadcasts, including the following St. Patrick's Day broadcast of "Town Hall Tonight" from 1937.

In the Pittsburgh Press of Nov. 20, 1938, an article talks about Jim's authority on the show.
The article makes reference to "The Family Ford," which has an interesting history in itself. For instance, a search in IMDB yields this title.

Note the writing credit to W.C. Fields. A peek at the Providence (R.I.) News from March 18, 1922 reveals this tidbit.

This was apparently a very successful act. One can find clips about "The Family Ford" as late as 1928.

Newspaper stories about Uncle Jim, usually referencing his kindliness to Allen fans, abound through the 1940s. Here is an item from the Pittsburgh Press from Nov. 10, 1946.

In those later years, Jim was proud to see the success of his daughter as a singer with the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, under the name Mary Marlowe.

One of the last items on Jim prior to Allen's death in 1956 to appear in the papers was seen on Jan. 29, 1955.

After Fred Allen's radio career ended, he embarked on a new career as an author. He also became a regular panelist on the game show "What's My Line?"

On Feb. 9, 1951, columnist Earl Wilson reported that Uncle Jim would be comedian Red Skelton's new manager.

On March 17, 1956, Allen was taking a stroll, when he collapsed and died. It is in the aftermath of Allen's death that Uncle Jim emerges in his most touching appearance in the press, as the family spokesman. Here he speaks especially movingly about the love between Fred and his wife, Portland Hoffa. The full articles can be found at But here are some excerpts.

In the 1960s, Harkins continued to take part in tributes to his late boss, Fred Allen.

Above all, Uncle Jim was a survivor, as subsequent newspaper coverage proved. Here is a mention of him in Jack O'Brian's column on Jan. 23, 1969.

Jim Harkins' death in a nursing home in suburban Philadelphia was reported on Oct. 27, 1970. The following appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

And thus ended the storied career of someone who basked in the reflected glow of a very large spotlight and even managed to grab a share of it himself.

So let's leave Uncle Jim by playing another vocal of his, this time "Three Kisses," from 1932.


  1. That is a lovely, gentle, well-researched tribute -- one of those happy combinations where the spirit of the subject imbues the entire piece. Fine writing and it's a delight to see the phrase "practice gratitude" was in print in 1938. Thanks for this portrait! Michael Steinman (JAZZ LIVES)

  2. Thank you, Michael, for those lovely words. I have learned a lot recently about what a fine person Uncle Jim was. And it also made me appreciate Fred more as well. I think I have the W.C. Fields-authored skit in a collection of Fields' writings. I will have to take another look at it.

  3. Because of YOU I know who he is!
    Great piece about someone I'm happy to know about.
    I love his voice!
    Thank you for bringing Uncle Jim to LIFE.

  4. You're most welcome, Confetta! You inspired me to write this post. And you are also the inspiration for this blog.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This doesn't take away from Uncle Jim's laurels one bit...but it's probably not he who's singing with the Sid Peltyn band of 1932.

    The name Harkins is not uncommon among the Irish diaspora. James Harkins of Boston (1905–'95) was a banjo and guitar player who sang in a strong tenor, with an accent bespeaking his home city.

    Born a stone's throw from Boston in Woburn, Massachusetts, young Jim started working in vaudeville houses in the Hub, singing and playing tenor banjo, and in 1929 made his radio debut over local station WNAC.

    By 1931 he had moved to New York, where he played rhythm guitar for several famous orchestra leaders - Richard Himber and Vincent Lopez among them - and in the less well known bands of Hal Mooney, Sid Peltyn, and Don Bigelow.

    In the '60s, Jim doubled on guitar and banjo for the Sammy Spear Orchestra on the "Jackie Gleason Show" from Miami. He also taught banjo and guitar for many years, often treating students to a few choruses of that good old Irish tenor.

    (Info from Bob Barta's website,, where a photo of Jim and his guitar is posted as well.)

  7. For some reason, my comments do not seem to be posting. So, I'll give it one more try:

    Thanks so much for this post! I can't wait to share this fine tribute with my father, James P Harkins, son of Uncle Jim Harkins! Known to me as "Silly Grandpa" as a small child. Thanks also for bringing back such wonderful family memories. I remember hearing the music as a kid and also that photo above was prominently displayed in our living room! I am also the proud owner of the Papal Medal mentioned above. Thanks again and can't wait to share this living family history with my Dad and my children! - Paul Harkins

  8. Thanks for providing recent updates regarding the concern, I look forward to read more.
    Showbiz news