Singin’ Sam was the stage name of Harry Frankel, who lived in Richmond for much of his life. Beginning his career as a minstrel performer and vaudevillian, he was a famous personality in the early days of commercial radio. He was best known as Singin’ Sam, the Barbasol Man for his long association with that company.
Sam’s specialty was the old songs (songs that were old in the 1930s!), and he often bragged that he never introduced a new tune in his entire career. Nonetheless, he was nationally known and much loved for his deep voice and informal, down-home style. His shows were 15 minutes in length and consisted of four songs accompanied by Sam’s ad libbed commentary extolling the virtues of by-gone days, and of course, Barbasol or Coca-Cola.
Born on January 27, 1888, to Sol and Lizzie Frankel, Harry spent his early childhood in Danville, Kentucky. Sol moved his clothing business to Richmond, Indiana when Harry was nine years old. The musically inclined youngster spent a great deal of time attending all the shows that came to town, often skipping school to do so. His favorite was the minstrel show, with its southern music and blackface comedians. After many years of singing in local quartets Harry, in 1908, realized his dream and “blacked up” as a professional minstrel performer for Coburn’s minstrels.
Harry performed with Coburn’s minstrels and later with Al G. Field Minstrels, the most famous troupe of its day. In the late 1920s, he teamed with a friend from his Coburn days, Joe Dunlevy, and they hit the vaudeville circuit as “The Two Blackbirds.”
In 1930 when vaudeville was beginning to suffer from the effects of the Depression, a friend who owned the Great States Lawn Mower Company approached Harry and asked him if he would be interested in going on the air to advertise his company. He accepted and began broadcasting from WLW in Cincinnati. His real name didn’t seem catchy enough for a radio personality, so he adopted the stage name “Singin’ Sam” and billed himself as “The Lawnmower Man.” He was so successful that Great States had trouble filling all the new orders, and his show was voted the most popular on WLW.
When an executive of the Barbasol Company heard him, he brought Sam to New York to begin broadcasting for his company. “Singin’ Sam the Barbasol Man” made his debut on WABC on July 20, 1931 and soon became a national success.
Unfortunately, Harry hated living in New York, and in 1934 he decided he’d had enough of it and quit, returning to Richmond with his bride-to-be, Helene “Smiles” Davis.
Helene had her own interesting entertainment history. She had been performing for much of her life beginning at age six. She married and divorced Ned Wayburn, noted dance instructor and Broadway director. Soon after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, General Pershing issued a call for performers to travel to Europe to entertain American troops, and Helene was among those selected to go. She took with her several current tunes, including one that was so new it hadn’t yet been published; she took a lead sheet written in pencil with just single notes. It was the Lee S. Roberts and J. Will Callahan tune titled “Smiles,” and Helene made such an impression singing it that the soldiers soon began to ask for “Smiles” when they wanted to hear her. For the rest of her life she was known as “Smiles.”
On May 2, 1934 Harry and Smiles were married in Richmond and took up residence on a five-acre farm on the National Road (now U.S. 40) 11 miles west of town, dubbed “Just-a-Mere” Farm.
Harry and Smiles performed in local productions, including the Richmond Civic Minstrel Shows in May 1933 and July 1934. Many offers came to him from Hollywood and elsewhere, but Harry was happy being at home in Indiana. Later that year, he resumed his popular Barbasol program, but only because the company arranged to have him broadcast it live from Cincinnati. It was an easy, once weekly commute that allowed him to live in Richmond. He stayed with Barbasol for a total of seven years.
From 1937 to 1942, Harry appeared for Coca-Cola, but not on a nationwide, live broadcast. Hundreds of small radio stations, which were not linked to the national networks, used transcriptions for their programming. Transcriptions were programs recorded onto 16-inch discs, which were then distributed to these small stations and transmitted to the public by local announcers. Because this show, Refreshment Time with Singin’ Sam, was a 15 minute, 5 day a week commitment, the transcription format suited him very well. Every other week Harry flew to New York, and in two days he recorded 10 shows, which left him 12 days to live his rural life in Richmond.
By now it was a bit less rural, though, because he had built a large house on a farm closer to town. This house, located on Henley Road and called Trouper Hill, was fashioned after the house in which he lived as a youngster in Kentucky.
In 1942 the head of the American Federation of Musicians, James C. Petrillo, banned the use of transcriptions, insisting that all radio shows be performed live. Harry refused to move to New York, so he severed his agreement with Coca-Cola. For a brief time during the war, he appeared again for Barbasol, this time broadcasting from Indianapolis.
In 1945 after the musicians’ strike was settled, Harry formed Transcription Sales Company and produced his own series of 260 fifteen-minute programs that could be syndicated indefinitely. Appropriately titled Reminiscin’ with Singin’ Sam, it followed the familiar pattern of four songs ranging from Stephen Foster classics to Tin Pan Alley hits and often including one song of more contemporary release.
He planned to retire and move to Sarasota, Florida, where he and Smiles already spent a great deal of time. In 1948, while visiting Richmond he suffered a heart attack, and on June 12 he died. His grave in Earlham Cemetery in Richmond is marked with a large stone engraved with his on-air greeting, “Howdy folks. This is your old friend Singin’ Sam”
Harry Frankel was an unpretentious man of simple tastes who enjoyed golf, hunting, fishing, woodworking, and farming. He had the talent and opportunity to become a major star in New York or Hollywood, but he preferred living in this small town in Indiana to the fast pace and false people of the entertainment capitals.
Find more about Harry Frankel on MRL’s digital collection on the Indiana State Library’s site, Indiana Memory.