Monday, March 9, 2020

Marion Sunshine and Marijuana

While putting together my list of Top Ten Marijuana Jazz Tunes by Women last year, I learned that the song "When I Get Low I Get High," recorded in 1936 by Ella Fitzgerald, was written by actress, singer and songwriter Marion Sunshine.

Sunshine is best remembered as a songwriter and performer who helped introduce Latin music to American audiences. The prestigious Julliard school of music offers a scholarship in her name.

Born Mary Tunstall Ijames in Louisville, Kentucky on May 15, 1894, Sunshine began performing on the vaudeville circuit at the age of five, along with her older sister Clare, who was dubbed Florence Tempest because of her more tempestuous personality (apparently Mary was the Sunny sister). Starting with the first Ziegfeld Follies in 1907, Marion appeared in a dozen Broadway shows through 1926.

Between 1908 and 1916, Sunshine also appeared in 26 short films, many of them with her sister and billed as "Sunshine and Tempest," the title of a three-reel Rialto short produced in 1915. A promotional article about the film extolls, "As motion picture players the charming young actresses are great successes. Their clear cut beauty, their alertness, and their ready intelligence gives them more than the average screen value."

After becoming involved with Cuban businessman Eusebio Azpiazú in 1922, Sunshine began translating lyrics and writing songs for his brother Justo Ángel Azpiazú, better known as Don Azpiazú, a prominent Havana band leader. The 1930 rendition of "The Peanut Vendor," with English lyrics by Sunshine, became the first million-selling single in the history of Latin music. She and her husband engineered Azpiazu's 1931 tour, and she sang "The Peanut Vendor" with his band across the country. It may be Sunshine singing the song in this 1933 animated film.

"The Peanut Vendor" has been recorded over 160 times (Wikipedia), including versions by Louis Armstrong and Anita O'DayGroucho Marx whistled the tune in the film Duck Soup (1933), Jane Powell gave it an operatic treatment with Xavier Cugat Luxury Liner (1948), Cary Grant sang a bit of it it in the film Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with Jean Arthur on the piano, and Judy Garland sang a fragment in the film A Star is Born (1954). 

Nicknamed "The Rumba Lady," Sunshine co-wrote other rumba hits such as "Mango Mangue," recorded by Celia Cruz and Charlie ParkerEating mangoes before smoking marijuana is said to improve the high, and the rumba was associated with marijuana culture in the 1930s: Louis Armstrong recorded a rumba version of "La Cucaracha" in 1935.

The national hearings that brought about the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (essentially making it illegal at the federal level) solidified the racist image of the dangerous, pot-puffing Mexican male. It is likely novelist Nathanael West was reading accounts of those hearings as he began his seminal Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust. In the book, a Mexican named Miguel and the actress Faye (who sings "If You're a Viper") dance provocatively to a rumba, which the white cowboy actor Earl is unable to join, so he flies into a rage and clubs Miguel over the head. Read more.

Following the original Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald recording of "When I Get Low, I Get High," Sunshine's composition has been recorded by at least 17 other artists. A music video cover of the song by The Speakeasy Three wearing shimmering green gowns has 16 million YouTube views and three verses not in Ella's version:

My man's full up
Got his belly in a tangle
'Cause I'm a slice of pie
He just can't handle

My pockets are empty
And my chips are down
But I ain't gonna holler
No, I ain't gonna frown

There was a ruckus last night
I ended up in jail
But I ain't got to worry
My girls got my bail, 'cause

When I get low
I get high. 

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