27th November, 2018
Hi Riff Raffers,
“The Jean Genie lives on his back. The Jean Genie laughs in his daks.”
Another mondegreen, a misheard lyric by yours truly on David Bowie’s 1972 hit, ‘Jean Genie’, that features David blowing a bit of sixties style harp. Now that I have your attention I’d like to pass on a story about a young lad of Australian heritage, who was a wizard on the harmonica back in the fifties. His name is Gene Jimae.
From the age of five till his twelfth birthday Gene traveled the world, had numerous appearances on television and stage shows, played with some of the biggest bands in the world, wrote several compositions, recorded an album and owned a record label. However his teenage years are somewhat of a mystery with no mention of Gene again until his tragic death in 1961. A paragraph in the ‘Fort Pierce News Tribune’ reported the accident: “Gene N Jimae, 18 of Opa–Locka was killed early Sunday when his car went out of control at high speed and overturned.” His late model convertible, driven by Gene was travelling at one hundred miles per hour and flipped over four times on State Road Nine.
Gene Walter Nelson Jimae was born to parents George Walter Nelson Jimae, an American magician and Australian mother Joan Mary Jimae (née Haskell) in 1943. It may have been in Detroit, Michigan, but I couldn’t retrieve any documentation to support this. There was a fair bit going on in Detroit during that year with the infamous ‘Race Riots’.
George Jimae went under his stage name of Jim Jimae (sometimes James). He was the son of a wealthy businessman who was Vice President of the ‘Timken Roller Bearing Company Of America’. He ran away from home at the age of twelve frustrated with what was reported as “parental control”. Jim eventually ended up in Broadway at Schubert’s theatre as a ‘call boy’ (stagehand). Here he learned adagio dancing (partner acrobatics), but he gave this away and joined the US Navy Academy in Annapolis. In 1925 he would visit the shores of Australia with an American fleet. At some point Jim suffered multiple injuries from a failed parachute drop from 44,000 feet. He would spend twelve months recuperating in hospital where he taught himself sleight of hand magic tricks, using cards, cigarettes and other articles. A life in vaudeville awaited.
In 1938 Jim returned to Australia this time as part of the Tivoli circuit. He became acquainted with dancer, Joan Mary Haskell from Matraville, Sydney. It was love at first sight and within five weeks they were married at St. Stephen’s Church (just down the road from the theatre where they were required for a matinee show immediately after the ceremony). Joan was barely eighteen, Jim slightly older by twelve years. Joan had been dancing on the Sydney Professional stage since she was six. Best man was Australian baritone singer, Albert Chappelle and in the congregation were world professional wrestlers, Sammy Stein, ‘Rowdy’ Rudy La Ditzi, Ray Steele and Paul Jones all friends of the groom. An interesting sidelight to the wedding was the bride and groom’s reference to Jim’s Dad. Jim cracked, “the old man performed when I went on the stage, but I didn’t take much notice.” Joan referenced, “I always wanted to marry an actor and I’m not afraid of my Father-in- Law.”
The newlyweds would leave that Christmas to live in America. Five years later their only son Gene was born. As soon as he could walk he was blowing a toy harmonica. By four he was playing popular tunes of the day. He could do a pretty handy rendition of Cole Porter’s, ‘Begin the Beguine’. His parents bought his first professional harmonica for his fifth birthday and five months later he appeared on American Television. Bandsman, Paul Whiteman was so taken with him that he nominated Gene for a nationwide television competition. Gene duly won and was anointed with the title, ‘Worlds Youngest Harmonica Soloist’. He featured on several television shows including Ed Sullivan’s, ‘Toast Of The Town’ and performed on Broadway at the Palace Theatre on multiple occasions. Gene became the youngest member of the ‘American Society Of Composers’ at the age of nine and by the age of twelve had thirty compositions registered. Gene had been backed by some of the biggest bands going round, Paul Whiteman, Johnny Long, Ray Bloch, David Rose, the Dorsey Brothers, Enoch Light, the Philadelphia Philharmonic and Louis Prima. He traveled the world performing in Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and in 1953 he ventured down under. Gene arrived as part of the Tivoli circuit and was high on the bill for David Martin’s show, ‘Take It From Me’. His set ranged from Gershwin’s, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ to Jerry Murad’s Harmonicat’s, ‘Peg o’ my Heart’. His Fathers act which followed thrilled audiences by producing lit cigarettes and pipes from thin air and finding them in unusual places. While in Sydney Gene cut eight tracks at Columbia Records studio in Homebush under direction of Bob Gibson with orchestra and Jim Jimae on chordal harps.
Returning to the States in 1955 Gene acquired his own record label, ‘Genie’ from the proceeds of his European tour. He recorded ‘Song Of India’ with the flip, ‘Riders In The Sky’. A Billboard review at the time wrote, “Gene Jimae a talented young harmonica virtuoso, makes a potent debut on the Genie label with some tricky mouth work on an upbeat version of an oldie. The ten year old kid is gonna go places. Multi track recording is exciting.” Other acts signed to his label include Chuck Berry (not the one your thinking of, but Charles Clifford Shepard Berry), who performed with Henry Williams as the hillbilly duo, “Lone Jack Boys’ and they record a single, ‘That Ugly Girl Of Mine’ a tune composed by Gene. Gail Sunday records one of Gene’s songs, ‘I’ll Dust The Stars’ with Gene backing on harmonica and ‘The Nomads’ (not with Gus’) did a garage version of Popeye’s theme. In 1956 for some obscure reason the Australian Colombian recordings appear on Randle Wood’s Tennessee label, ‘Dot’ and not the ‘Genie’ label. The album’s entitled, ‘Harmonica Magic’. The same year Gene’s Dad forms a label with a couple of his Vaudeville mates under the moniker, ‘Flair-X’. They sign ‘Doo Wop’ group the ‘Hi Fives’, who record, ‘Throwing Pebbles in a Pond’. Genie records originally operated out of a sixteen story office building between West 77th Street and West 78th Street in New York. The company was moved to Michigan, Indiana prior to 1959.
It is at this point the Gene Jimae story goes cold. Perhaps he had some of his fathers rebelliousness and bedevilment. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Gene’s next mention is in 1961 when his death and funeral notice is reported. His name does appear on a memoriam page for Miami Senior High School, but not in the graduated. A bugbear of mine is that his recordings often appear under the banner of ‘novelty’, but if you listen to his recordings you would appreciate why this is a misnomer and why he was touted as the next Larry Adler. For me he might have been the equivalent to Eivets Rednow (Stevie Wonder) who recorded an amazing version of ‘Alfie’ with an unbelievable tonguing technique in 1968, at the raw age of eighteen.
For your aural pleasure I offer this abbreviated recording of ‘Song of India’ by Gene (His life’s breath eternalised) in which he plays four harmonicas on seven different parts. Hear here ‘India’. Gene’s album is available for download on iTunes and streaming on Spotify.
Forever young, Gene Jimae.
Postscript: A different version of how Jim learnt his conjuring tricks appeared in another newspaper article. A fall while adagio dancing left him in hospital for fourteen weeks and it was here he developed his craft. Robert Ripley called ‘Jimae the Mystifier’ the fastest hands on stage.
Special mention to Ray Grieve and his wonderful historical book, ‘A Band In A Waistcoat Pocket’ (The Story Of The Harmonica In Australia) that introduced me to the name Gene Jimae.
8th April, 2019– I recently came across these two quotes worthy of addition. The first, 10 year old Gene’s comment to his Mum after signing the contract with HMV four his four sided disc. “What do you know Mum? I’ve got a wonderful contract, good royalties and all the records I can eat. And regarding the royalties I don’t want to be a millionaire I just want live like one.” (Sydney Sun, 6 October, 1953)
The second is how the sound of hoof-beats was made on Gene’s version of ‘Riders in The Sky’. “…… Jimmy waved aside the involved box of tricks which the sound effects department produced, made a few passes with the plastic box which houses his son’s harmonicas, and brought to light the most authentic sounding hoofbeats this side of Randwick racecourse.” (Sydney Sun, 22 October 1953).