Sunday, January 10, 2016

Joe Sodja - A Forgotten Musician And Entertainer

Joe Sodja (1911-1992)
The name of Joe Sodja does not pop up frequently nor is easily found in the usual reference books and articles about jazz or popular performers, and the info found on the internet only provides fragmentary details about his career. However, below I'll refer what I found available about Joe Sodja - a remarkable, but forgotten musician and entertainer.
Joe Sodja 1938 - YouTube still shot
This inserted photo of Joe Sodja is a still shot from a Vitaphone (soundie) film featuring Fred Rich and his orchestra recorded in 1938. Joe Sodja performs as a guest appearance at the end of the film playing a version of Chinatown, My Chinatown accompanied by Fred Rich's band.
Excerpt of Vitaphone trailer
The Vitaphone soundie has been uploaded at YouTube and is inserted below, Joe Sodja performs Chinatown, My Chinatown starting at 8:19

Joe Sodja's performance in the Vitaphone film shows his extraordinary dexterity as a guitarist combined with a humorous attitude appealing to a wide audience expecting to be entertained. This stage appearance seems to have been a successfull choice, although his attitude may seem outdated nowadays. Nevertheless, Joe Sodja had success and spent most of his career as a professional performer in the popular field of entertainment business. But in 1937 he also had a short stint in a regular jazz setting, when he had the opportunity to record a session under his own name for the Variety label as Joe Sodja's Swingtette accompanied by some top notch jazz artists of the time: Joe Marsala (cl), Frank Froeba (p), Artie Shapiro (b) and George Wettling (d). The session was recorded in New York on June 18, 1937 and four sides were cut, but only two of them were issued. The discographical info is inserted below
Info excerpted from Tom Lord's discography vers. 9.0 (click to enlarge)
This session by Joe Sodja is the only registered jazz session during his career, moreover the recording of Limehouse Blues is the only tune from the session that has been reissued. It was reissued in the 1970s on a double LP by Columbia Records titled 50 Years of Jazz Guitar featuring various artists.

Joe Sodja's guitar playing in this swinging version of Limehouse Blues is quite intriguing and remarkable. His approach does not resemble the commonly applied technique by any of his well known contemporary American fellow guitarists. His guitar solo style has been compared with Django Reinhardt's because of the use of fast and long solo runs up and down the fretboard especially well known from Reinhardt's 'manouche' approach to the guitar soloist's opportunities. Sodja's right hand picking technique seems to have been transferred from a mandolin or banjo approach, which incidentally seems likely, since he also knew and played these string instruments. When not playing solo, his approach to comping also resembles Reinhardt's style - very unusual for an American guitarist at the time.
Joe Sodja featured in an ad for Gibson guitars
Joe Sodja was from Cleveland, where he was born in 1911 in a family with Slovenian roots. He had four brothers with whom he formed a band, The Arcadian Melody Pilots, that performed locally playing polkas and waltzes at dance hall gigs and was featured on local radio networks. At that time his great idol and inspiration was Harry Reser, the famous tenor banjo player and bandleader, and he concentrated on learning and refining his banjo playing technique. At age 16 he was discovered by talent scout and bandleader Paul Ash, who had a longer stint at a theatre in Cleveland with his orchestra. Sodja was invited to perform with the orchestra as a soloist, and after this engagement he became a popular solo attraction on the radio, first locally but in the early 1930s he was discovered and hired by bandleader Fred Waring, who had his own programs featuring his orchestra and invited guest on the NBC radio that reached all regions of the US. His engagement with NBC and Fred Waring brought Sodja to New York where he was a regular featured artist in Waring's programs during the 1930s. He also toured as a soloist on the national night club and conventional circuit performing light entertainment music besides appearing in various TV shows from the late 1940s and on. From about 1946 Sodja started a collaboration with pianist and bandleader Julian Gould with whom he recorded 150 transcriptions for Langworth during the following ten years in a trio setting labeled as the Joe Sodja Trio.
Julian Gould
The Langworth transcriptions by the Joe Sodja Trio - like similar recordings by other artists -  were not commercially issued but were strictly decided for radio broadcast only. As far as I know, none of these transcriptions by the Joe Sodja Trio have since been reissued on LP or CD, but a couple of examples are available at YouTube. - Here is first Joe Sodja Trio performing Guitar Boogie 

Sodja's guitar solo in this version of Guitar Boogie shows his inspiration from Les Paul, who had a hit with his version of the tune in 1947. The interplay with Gould's piano is excellent and the result is a swinging take that withstand repeated listening, I think. The same applies to the recording by the trio of a version of Exactly Like You from the Langworth transriptions

Sodja's collaboration with Julian Gould also included a recording of a LP that featured Sodja playing tenor banjo
LP front cover illustration
The audio from this LP has been uploaded at YouTube, here's an example of the duo's playing in the honky tonk style

In 1957 Joe Sodja was hired to participate in a low-budget Hollywood Western movie titled The Parson and the Outlaw where he had a small role as a newspaper agent, moreover he composed and recorded the soundtrack music for the movie showing off his banjo playing
Original movie poster
The movie was a success and was followed by a couple more in the same genre, Sodja again was offered small roles and participated in the screen play. About the same time there was recorded a couple of solo performances on screen featuring Joe Sodja showing off his capacity as a guitar player. To end this presentation of a remarkable musician and entertainer, here is Joe Sodja playing his version of The Old Mill Stream 


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