German Tap: Interview with Uwe Meusel

The Interview was originally conducted in German by Bernd Paffrath to appear in the German Tap Magazine, May 2020 issue. Updated June 1.

Hello Uwe, we talked a long time ago about you writing a book. How did you come up with “The Sound of Tap”?

I had been researching German tap dance history in archives for a while and in 2009 I visited Carmen Lahrmann, who gave me her collection of shellac records for transfer. She herself had recorded four titles with tap dancing as a child. I then went to Andreas Schmauder, one of the biggest collectors and dealers of shellac records in Europe, and searched with him for tap dance recordings in his collection. He was very fond of the subject and from then on always had it in mind. The next step was that I started to write a discography. I can still remember one night when I copied the list from Rusty Frank’s „TAP! – The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900-1955“ and then searched my entire archive for records and CDs with recordings of tap dancing. My titles were added to the list to build a full discography, which I then gradually completed. During this process I searched through old record discographies and catalogues and also had some searches running on the internet. Over time I made more and more contact with shellac collectors all over Europe, the United States and even Australia, who also found the topic interesting and supported me in my search for information, label scans or recordings.  

What fascinated you so much about this topic?

Primarily I wanted to tell this largely unknown tap dance story, not only with words but with the sounds of tap and the music that accompanies them. Music always conveys the atmosphere of its moment in time. In the beginning tap dancing was a staple of the vaudeville stage and later with the arrival of sound film, the cinema. Over the same period, with the invention of the phonograph and gramophone, stage and film music as well as the sound of tap came into the home. For the first time the hits from revues and films became easily available to listen to whenever you wished. I’ve always appreciated the wonderful immediacy of these recordings. With little in the way of technical gimmickry in recording studios of the period, the music titles had to be recorded in one take, because post-production was not possible. You can hear the concentration of the musicians on these recordings. There remains a huge audience still for vintage music as evidenced by the many ‘tribute’ bands still performing around Europe today. As a tap dancer, the pleasure of hearing well played period music backing tap performers is a joy in itself. As I discovered more recordings of tap performers I had only ever previously read about, I realized the aural aspects of why they had been stars could now be made available to anyone with an interest in the subject. I was particularly surprised by the high proportion of early European recordings, which means that the story of tap on record can be presented in greater detail internationally for the first time. The idea of being able to make a decisive European contribution to tap dance history, particularly with favorable European copyright regulations, was a great motivation to undertake this project, despite all difficulties and without guarantees.

When did the idea take shape?

In 2015 I already had a relatively complete collection of the recordings needed, and Richard Weize of Bear Family Records was interested in it. He had released a number of compilation box sets and his experience guided me through the first steps. I then spent many months scanning labels, transcribing the choreographies of the instructional works and continuing to search intensively for recordings and the original records. I brought Kurt Albert and Sam Weber on board starting in 2017, and the first biographies and descriptions of the pieces were created. In the meantime, the overall time frame was extended from 1953 to 1965 in order to follow the musical development of tap on record even further and thus to present the first 40 years in their entirety. In December 2017 I began to assess the recorded material we held, in terms of the musical and tap content as well as the quality of the source material and record pressings. To do this, all the records had to be cleaned and numbered. Then I took them by car to London, where a specialist transferred the sides digitally. This is a difficult and demanding job involving trial and error with differing needle sizes for each individual recording until the best sound is achieved, which takes a while. In April 2018 I collected the records and got the opportunity to listen to them in unedited digitized format. For the majority of recordings, the very first time this had been done.  

Has the objective changed over the years?

Not really, the main aim stayed the same. That said, the written element got more extensive and therefore had to be changed again and again. I was so enthusiastic about the whole thing right from the start, because this historiographical publication contains everything that makes up tap dancing. Besides all the great and largely unknown titles in all kinds of music styles, there are also “Learn to Tap” courses on shellac records, where the topics of notation, terminology and rhythmic presentation come into play. These range from Ned Wayburn to Louis DaPron, and I have also transcribed all these materials. Together with the original descriptions that accompany the records in various forms, this results in 391 PDF pages that we put on the DVD. I hope that tap teachers will discover how easy it is to read my notation system, and that they will have enough material from the historical documents to learn it step by step in various degrees of difficulty. But the most important thing for me is to save all these recordings for tap dance history through this release, because otherwise about half of them would be lost. This is especially true for the European recordings, which account for more than a third. In their entirety, they represent an audio history that has not yet been perceived.

What was particularly difficult in the recordings?

Records generally have a basic noise and sometimes a strong crackling sound. So you have to have as good and clean original pressings as possible. Tap-dancing sounds are sometimes very similar to the crackling, so you can’t go at it with automated software. This especially applied to stereo recordings where I had to remove single crackles by hand for weeks. Where this was not possible, better originals had to be bought. The situation is different with some of the rare radio recordings I have included, where you have to deal mainly with noise. As I mentioned earlier, in the end, the almost 400 titles will have to be restored and mastered by a specialist, which is a complex process.

How is your book organized, and what is its focus?

The book is based on the CDs, which is why they had to be structured first. For each CD there is a chapter in the accompanying book, in which all pieces are first described individually with some background information. There then follows the biographies of the tap dancers who are represented on the respective CD. The fact that we have come up with 77 detailed biographies was only possible thanks to the help of Terry Brown, a vintage music researcher and writer based in London, who wrote most of them. Sam Weber, Kurt Albert, Max Pollak, Rusty Frank, Fabien Ruiz, Natalie Westerdale, and other authors have also helped to make the book a reference work with information that we have gathered in extensive research, mainly from theatrical and newspaper archives from around the world. Each biography has four to ten pictures in black and white, and between the individual chapters the original record labels are documented in color. A total of about 800 photos are included. There has never been anything comparable for tap dancing before, and since everything will take place online in the future, this is probably also the last opportunity for such a publication. It is first and foremost a collection of material that provides not only a basis for future research on the acoustic side of tap dancing, but also for the sheer listening pleasure the recordings provide.

What makes the acoustic side significant?

When we look at tap dance in films, we pay attention to movements, to steps, and to techniques. We focus on the visuals, try to recognize the familiar and let ourselves be impressed by the special. If we like something, we try to imitate the picture or the step combination. This then leads to a certain form of choreographic thinking. But if the image is omitted, completely different senses come into play. We perceive mainly musical and rhythmic structures, and the sound of tap in its gradations takes on a central role. At the same time the brain tries to visualize what it hears, which is a very creative process. I once read that seeing confronts us with things, while hearing connects us with them. When we hear, we come between the sounds and their dynamic energy. We also develop an acoustic memory, which is much deeper and more permanent than the visual memory. Many of the pieces have become „catchy tunes“ for me, which accompany me constantly. It is always said that you have to have heard a lot of music to be able to improvise. In this sense, I also consider this release as a „school of listening“, which promotes the perception of musical and stylistic differences.

Which parts of the release are you particularly proud of?

The introductory CD „A Tribute to Bill Robinson“ was a matter of the heart for me. It will bring you close to the father of tap dancing in unreleased radio and private recordings. Then we were able to identify six alternative takes of Fred Astaire to present his tap recordings in their entirety for the first time. The English recordings are great and largely unknown, and three Japanese recordings from 1935 could be included. Even rarer are the teaching records with the textbooks, which can be used to learn tap technique in different languages up to advanced intermediate level. The section „Tap on the Air“ contains a selection of the most interesting radio presentations of tap dancing, which were also aimed at listeners. For the two bonus CDs at the end, I was able to select the most beautiful recordings, which are the results of a long, audibly comprehensible acoustic development, a development that has not yet reached its end. With the DVD, which contains further unreleased recordings, films and virtually an entire e-book, a complete multimedia work has been created, which is further enhanced by the accompanying YouTube channel.

How is the publication going?

In spring 2019 I had contacted all major music labels and publishers and initially received cancellations everywhere. It wasn’t until autumn that I received a positive reply from the publisher Kamprad. We decided on the subscription variant, as this is a straightforward deal for everyone interested: you pay a reduced price in advance to secure what has proved a somewhat cost-intensive production. The price seems high at first, but when you think about it, you realize what an amazing amount of material you get for it. I have invested more than 15,000 Euros for the materials alone over the years, and the publisher has to pay not only the production costs, but also all licenses and GEMA fees. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary that we get at least 300 pre-orders together. I actually thought that this would not be a problem with a worldwide tap community, but with currently 50+ pre-orders and the current corona situation, there is a growing danger that the project will fail at the last step due to lack of demand. The publisher has extended the deadline a last time until August 31, 2020. If we do not come close to the required number he will give the project „back into my hands“.

Who do you think the book is particularly aimed at?

As a tap dance teacher and musician, I have of course aimed it particularly at tap teachers all over the world. There are only a few standard works on tap dancing available and this audio story with great additional material is a first and an entertaining way to seriously educate yourself. In addition any fan of vintage music, vaudeville, revue and film musicals will find much to savor and enjoy. Many well-known as well as obscure performers can be heard for the first time since these recordings were originally issued. It’s a treasure trove of the musical styles and sounds of both tap and popular music across half a century of the world of entertainment and should have a wide appeal. I was amazed at how many of my students decided to pre-order. Therefore I hope that this information will be distributed in the tap scene so that it reaches those who can make this publication a reality by their vote of confidence.

Thank you very much for taking the time for us. We hope that this interview will help some of the readers to make a decision. German Tap will definitely report on the further course of events. All the best.