Brother Bones recorded one of the most instantly recognizable songs of the 20th century, yet he remains a virtual unknown, overshadowed by his own hit record and the world famous basketball team that adopted it as their official theme. Born Freeman Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, Brother Bones was a one-time shoe shine boy, working at stands in the vestibules of local barber shops. While shining, he would whistle, snap his shoeshine rag and pop his brushes in rhythm to records being played on an old Victrola. Brother Bones became known around town as "Whistling Sam." He would also tap dance and play the bones and knives, perfecting a style which used four bones in each hand whereas most bones players used only two. According to Tempo Records, Brother Bones was discovered by their president while playing in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and shortly after, "Sweet Georgia Brown" was playing on the radio across the nation.
Sweet Georgia Brown has been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Louis Armstrong - even the Beatles! But by far, the most famous variation was the whistling, bone-clacking version recorded by Brother Bones and his Shadows in the late 1940's. Adopted in 1952 as the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters, the catchy tune has been played during their pre-game warm-ups and throughout their games for decades. Millions around the world have heard it and it is probably in the top ten most listened to recordings in history. So important to the Harlem Globetrotters is "Sweet Georgia Brown" that it has become their aural trademark, much like MGM has it's familiar lion's roar.
Brother Bones went on to record over a dozen songs, appear in at least three movies, perform at Carnegie Hall and was on The Ed Sullivan Show. He died in 1974 at the age of 71 and was survived by his wife, Daisy, a daughter and two grandsons.
What are the bones and what are they made of?
The bones are one of several types of clappers and are classified as percussive instruments. Bones in some form date back almost as far as man himself and were probably among the earliest musical instruments made. Bone playing by slaves on American plantations gave rise in the 1800's to black street bands and minstrel shows where white performers in blackface danced, sang and told jokes. A typical set of bones are made of various woods or plastic. Originally, the bones were, by definition, bones. Most likely they were the rib bones of animals since their size and shape fit the need desired.
How do you play the bones?
The bones are placed parallel to each other between the fingers of the hand, extending downward. In performance, the bones move so rapidly that it is impossible to see that only one bone actually moves. The moving bone is held between the third and fourth fingers. The other is held stationary between the second and third digits of the hand. This is the anvil against which the moving bone strikes. The resulting sound is a distinctive clickety-clack.
Were there any other famous bones players?
Ted Goon (Mr. Goon-Bones) was another "boner" from the same era as Brother Bones. Ted was also a bone maker, trade marking his maple clackers as "Goon-Bones." Ted did enjoy success on the Crystalette label with The Sheik of Araby, but it was the flip side, Ain't She Sweet, that was Ted's greatest achievement. It's exaggerated off-beat and use of an echo chamber caused Billboard Magazine to call it a virtual monstrosity, but after being played by a St, Louis DJ, it exploded and sold over a million copies.
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