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Willie Eckstein Fonds (P767)

Excerpt from sheet music for the song "Montreal, Montreal, Montreal" by Willie Eckstein (1888-1963) (detail), 1951. Gift of the Estate of Paul Viau, Willie Eckstein Fonds P767, M2014.108.1.1 © McCord Museum

"Ev'ry body's happy
Ev'ry body's gay
'cause they're celebratin'
the Montreal way.

Ev'ry body loves you MONTREAL
When you're 'round with the gang doin' the town,
Montreal has something on the ball,
You'll be sure to find that they are right on their toes,
And they always know the spot where ev'ry thing goes,
Be sure to say, Hip Hip Hooray MONTREAL. [...]

When you're on a party
And you're full of pep
Montreal will show you
The right way to step [...]

Don't forget the Mountain
If you've got a date
Take her up there often
You'll make no mistake"

The golden age of Montreal nightclubs (1920-1970) was driven by Prohibition in America, which came into effect in 1920. To circumvent this restrictive law, many entertainers from New York and elsewhere in the United States decided to follow the party north and perform in Quebec's metropolis. Montreal thus became a hot destination for tourists with the vibrant entertainment scene peaking in the late 1940s.

Willie Eckstein was not only an international ragtime music legend and hugely popular silent film accompanist, he was also a remarkable songwriter: some compositions were political and patriotic, others, more romantic or danceable. After starting his career outside the country working with major American vaudeville stars, he chose to return to Montreal, where he performed steadily for more than half a century, epitomizing the nightclub scene at its height.

His tremendous affection for his home town inspired this 1945 ode to Montreal, celebrating the city's vibrancy and recalling this golden age of entertainment.

P767 Willie Eckstein Fonds. - 1877, 1900-1990. - 37 cm of textual records. - 187 iconographic documents. - 1 object.

Biographical Sketch

William "Billy" (aka Willie) Eckstein (1888-1963) was born in Point St. Charles on December 6, 1888. His parents, George Hugo Eckstein (1843-1824), born in Sweden, and Wilhelmina Hildebrant (1848-1913), from Prussia, immigrated to Canada in 1879. The couple had 13 children, several of whom died at a young age, and Willie Eckstein was the youngest. Musically gifted, he began playing public piano concerts at the age of four. He received classical training from, among others, Moretzky Upton, a professor associated with the McGill University Conservatory of Music. He was quickly recognized as a child prodigy and dubbed "The Boy Paderewski," a reference to celebrated pianist Ignace Paderewski.

Coming from a family of modest means, he decided to seek his fortune as a pianist of popular music on Broadway. Hired by the Orpheum Circuit, he entered the world of American vaudeville, touring throughout the United States, Canada and Europe from the ages of 12 to 18. Willie rubbed shoulders with artists like Houdini, Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, and performed for the greatest names in music, including Paderewski himself, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Joseph Hoffman and Vladimir de Pachmann. The young pianist played at a variety of venues: Karn Hall in Montreal, the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, and even the White House in the United States, where he played a piece for President Theodore Roosevelt.

After a yearlong stay in Europe to complete his musical training, he returned to Montreal in 1906 and began his career as a silent film accompanist, first at the Lyric Hall, and then at the Strand Theatre (corner Mansfield and St. Catherine). It was said that his playing was often more popular than the film itself. Dubbed "Mr. Fingers," Eckstein accompanied films such as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, creating a special atmosphere that attracted crowds. Willie Eckstein also worked as a piano demonstrator for J. W. Shaw. In 1919, he accompanied singer Gus Hill on Montreal radio station XWA for North America's first-ever live radio performance.

Prohibition came into effect in the United States in 1920, prompting many New York performers to move up to Montreal. This stimulated the city's burgeoning musical scene and numerous nightclubs and performance venues opened. When silent films fell out of favour, Eckstein left the Strand Theatre in 1930 and worked as a musician in several former cinemas like the Piccadilly (corner St. Alexandre and Mayor), the Outremont (corner Bernard and Champagneur), the Carioca (688 St. Catherine Street West) -- which Willie actually managed at one time -- , the Belmont (corner Mont Royal and St. Lawrence), the Amherst (corner St. Catherine and Amherst), the Rivoli (corner St. Denis and Bélanger), the Corona (corner Notre Dame and Charlevoix), the Seville (corner St. Catherine and Chomedey) and the Granada (corner St. Catherine Street East and Morgan).

Throughout his career, Willie Eckstein was known primarily for playing ragtime and "novelty piano," two genres related to jazz. The songwriter and composer worked with a number of well-known musical figures, like Beatrice Lillie (Béatrice Little), Nora Bayes, Jack Norworth, Harry Thomas (Reginald Thomas), Robert Langlois and Vera Guilaroff. He also started various groups, such as the Eckstein Jazz Band (Eckstein Jazz Orchestra), one of the first jazz bands in Montreal, directed by his brother Jack Eckstein, violinist; the William Eckstein Trio, an instrumental band; and the Piano Ramblers, a duo made up of Eckstein and Vera Guilaroff. Willie Eckstein also composed and played several patriotic songs, written for Queen Elizabeth II, Governor General Vincent Massey and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. In addition, he made regular appearances on radio and television.

In May 1963, numerous friends and admirers of the musician organized a celebration to commemorate his long career. It was the last time he performed in public. Later that evening, Willie Eckstein suffered a stroke, dying four months later on September 23 at the age of 74. The pianist left behind his wife, Catherine "Kitty" Casey ([1896?]-1979); his brother, Jack; two sisters, Mrs. H. L. Scott of Toronto and Mrs. Charles Smith of Boston; as well as three nephews, George W., Fred N. and John B. Eckstein, all from Montreal.

Willie Eckstein was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Lobby of Fame in 2006.

Scope and Content

William Eckstein was a prominent figure on Montreal's cultural scene during the first half of the 20th century. A pioneering musician, he was also a real character, with a strong personality and good sense of humour. He was unquestionably very influential in his time.

The documents preserved in this fonds provide a record of this pianist's professional activities, his working relationships, his engagements and achievements, as well as his personal life, in all its uniqueness. The fonds includes correspondence and greeting cards, two relief engravings, certificates, a napkin, religious images, prayer books, agreements and contracts, posters, handbills, business cards, an album cover, a program, song lyrics, musical scores and early drafts, numerous press clippings, two pencil drawings, 16 humorous and erotic cards, and a restaurant menu with handwritten notes. Acknowledgements of receipt and letters of appreciation from places like the American Consulate, the Government of Canada and Buckingham Palace underscore the fame of Willie Eckstein, who wrote several songs over the course of his career in honour of King George V, President Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, and Queen Elizabeth. A limited-edition portfolio illustrating the documents of surrender signed in Lüneburg, Reims, Berlin and Tokyo at the end of the Second World War is also evidence of the musician's support of various causes, like the Victory Loan campaigns in Canada. Additional documents include the handwritten will of William Eckstein, dated 1939, documentation related to his death on September 23, 1963 - a medical bill, cremation certificate and book of condolences - , letters, invoices and receipts saved by Kitty Eckstein in the 1960s and 1970s, and four extremely informative scrapbooks testifying to the pianist's early fame and popularity. Three of these scrapbooks essentially focus on Willie Eckstein's professional life, listing the various Canadian and American cities where he performed during his career, while the fourth is attributed to Charles "Chas" Summers, a member of the Eckstein Jazz Band and a great friend of Willie's.

The fonds also contains a batch of 29 negatives and 138 old photographs of various sizes that similarly document the pianist's private and professional lives, primarily during the period 1940 to 1963. Some of the images really stand out, like the Armistice parade in 1918 on the corner of University and Sherbrooke, an appeal for the 1940-1945 war effort, and concert pianos by Quidoz, another company that Willie Eckstein worked for as a representative. There are also autographed photographs of famous people and snapshots of the musician with his wife Kitty, his friends, or his dog Casey.

Source of title proper: Based on the creator of the fonds.

Physical description: The iconographic documents contained in this fonds include 2 relief engravings, 2 pencil drawings, 16 printed cards, 29 negatives and 138 gelatin silver print photographs of various sizes.

Immediate source of acquisition: When Willie died, the documents in this fonds were kept by his wife, Catherine "Kitty" Casey Eckstein. Following her death in 1979, the documents were given to Paul Viau. In 2015, the estate of Mr. Viau donated this valuable corpus to the McCord Museum.

Language: The documents are in English, French, Swedish and Arabic, but primarily in English.

The fonds is divided into the following series, sub-series and files:

  • P767/A Personal Life

  • P767/B Professional Life
    • P767/B1 Agreements, contracts and correspondence. - 1909-1964. - 2 cm of textual documents.

    • Digitized documents
    • Scope and Content: This subseries contains documentation pertaining to pianist Willie Eckstein's working relationships and professional engagements. It is composed primarily of agreements, contracts and correspondence written between 1909 and 1964.

      These documents give an account of the intellectual property of some of the artist's works, as well as meetings, rehearsals and get-togethers with his employers and colleagues. For example, the subseries contains an agreement signed in 1948 by René Bastien, owner of the Château Ste-Rose in Laval, confirming the hiring of William Eckstein as pianist and bandleader for a period of one year, at a salary of $150/week. A contract, written in 1951, shows the royalties paid to Pat Di Stasio and Billy Eckstein by Les Éditions du Passe-Temps in exchange for the transfer of their rights to the composition entitled "Bonsoir Chérie." Similarly, a certificate of registration issued in 1952 in accordance with Canada's Copyright Act identifies Eckstein as the original creator and holder of the copyright for the song "Follow the Birds to Victoria, B.C." Correspondence from Bert Pearl of the CBC radio show The Happy Gang, songwriter and composer Alex Kramer of the New York music publishing company Kramer-Whitney, the Music Publisher Holding Corporation of New York and the Liberty-Bell Music Publishing Co. of Brooklyn all chronicle Eckstein's efforts to have distributors and music publishers promote songs like "Sweet Kitty Casey" and "It's Easter Again."

      A composer of songs for special occasions, Willie Eckstein wrote songs for King George V, President Roosevelt, and Sir Winston Churchill. In fact, correspondence from the American consulate, the Governor General of Canada, Winston Churchill's secretary, Balmoral Castle and Buckingham Palace acknowledge the reception of recordings or scores. The subseries also contains thank-you notes and letters of appreciation from the Unity Club and patients at the Montreal General Hospital. Letters signed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Leader of the Opposition Lester B. Pearson in 1959 are evidence of their interest in the song "Queen of Canada," a tribute composed by Eckstein to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's tour of Canada. In addition, the subseries contains an invitation to the ball of June 25, 1959, organized at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal to mark this occasion, along with greeting cards from Quebec Premier Jean Lesage, Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, and John Diefenbaker and Lester B. Pearson, when they were each Prime Minister of Canada. The support the artist received throughout his career is summarized in a handwritten letter he addressed to the Canada Council [for the arts] in 1961 as part of applying for a grant to pursue his activities.

      Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the sub-series.

      Language: The documents are in English and French.

    • P767/B2 Concert programs and advertisements

    • P767/B3 Musical works. - 1938-1960. - 2.5 cm of textual documents.

    • Digitized documents
    • Scope and Content: This subseries contains mid-20th-century musical works by Willie Eckstein. It consists primarily of song lyrics, sheet music and early drafts -- often unfinished -- that shed more light on the pianist's creative process.

      The music of Willie Eckstein is upbeat, romantic, patriotic, passionate and engaged. Among the scores found in the subseries are those for "Goodbye Sunshine, Hello Moon," from the Ziegfeld Follies, 1919, "The Alouette Song" (1955), written to encourage Montreal's football team, "Montreal, Montreal, Montreal" (1945), a tribute to the city's festive atmosphere, complete with a French version by Pat di Stassio (di Stasio), "The Red Cross," dedicated to the Canadian Red Cross, and "Beautiful Thoughts," an instrumental whose cover features a photo of Princess Margaret at the piano. Eckstein expressed his patriotism in songs like "Johnny Canuck's 'Over There'," "A Toast to the King and Queen" (1939), composed in homage to King George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth, and "Queen of Canada," written to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's royal tour of Canada. His work was also influenced by the war, as illustrated in his compositions "Our Hats off to Canada" (1942), "Churchill & Roosevelt" (1942), "Cheers for the C.P.C." (1942), "The Song That Leads to Victory" (1945), "Make it Final Victory" (1945), and "The 'V' Song" (1941), an ode to democracy. Some of the scores are signed by the artist, and one is autographed to Barbara Layton.

      The subseries also contains typewritten song lyrics, some annotated, and many with multiple copies. Among these are "Follow the Birds to Victoria, B.C.," "De Ballet," "Got a Date at the Bee-hive in the Berkeley Hotel," "McGill-McGill-McGill," a celebration of the legendary university, "Strollin' on the Mountain" (special Kiwanis edition) and its French version, "En allant à la montagne," a naughty version of "T'was the Night Before Christmas" and "Win the War." On the back of a copy of "It's Easter Again" are handwritten lyrics for "The World Situation," a song that enumerates the latest calamities and political tensions. The collection also includes several love songs, such as "With a Song in My Heart and a Tear in My Eye," "It's O.K. by Me -- If it's O.K. by You" and a fragment of "When You Come to the [End of the Day]." Eckstein expresses his love for his wife Catherine Casey in the song "Kitty, Sweet Kitty Casey."

      The subseries also contains early drafts of songs and handwritten notes, including the lyrics for "A Song for Casey," found in a folder decorated with stickers. Finally, there are lists of song titles and excerpts from two speeches, one delivered by Winston Churchill to the United States Congress on December 26, 1941, and the other given by Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

      Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the sub-series.

      Language: The documents are in English.

    • P767/B4 Influences and musical styles

    • P767/B5 Scrapbooks
    • Scope and Content: This subseries is composed of four scrapbooks, three of which are devoted to Willie Eckstein. These extremely rich collections contain postcards, correspondence, show tickets, handbills, invitations, concert programs and press clippings. They illustrate the pianist's fame and document his professional and philanthropic activities, along with his friendships and family relationships.

      The first scrapbook traces the early years of Willie Eckstein's career, primarily from 1900 to 1925. It contains postcards, letters, show tickets, invitations, concert programs and photographs. It documents the pianist's precocious fame, notably in several articles that describe him as a child prodigy. There is a craft that young Willie Eckstein made for his parents, a letter from his brother August, a watercolour by his sister Clara and an account of a visit to Washington written by his father George Hugo Eckstein. The second album, composed of press clippings, letters, concert programs and musical scores, traces the pianist's career, primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. It documents Willie Eckstein concerts in Montreal venues and private performances for rich Montreal families. Several documents also chronicle his involvement in fundraising events and shows to benefit clubs, sports leagues and charities. In addition, the scrapbook contains photographs of Willie Eckstein at various times of his life along with genealogical notes about his family. A third, thinner, scrapbook contains press clippings assembled by the artist between 1938 and 1954. It primarily chronicles performances given by Eckstein, including some to benefit soldiers and veterans, and publicity for his composition, "The 'V' Song," composed during the Second World War. In addition, the album contains a letter from a Toronto Star journalist dated May 23, 1942, and a photograph of the artist as a young boy.

      The fourth scrapbook was compiled by pianist and organist Charles "Chas" Summers, a very close friend of Willie Eckstein. This impressive collection, entitled by its author "My Life Is (Mostly) in Your Hands (with apologies to Eddie Cantor)," includes numerous press clippings, letters, musical scores and photographs, along with testimonials from several friends and celebrities. It reflects the musician's interests and professional activities, including many performances as a member of the Eckstein Jazz Orchestra, which played for First War veterans and at dances and events held by various organizations, clubs and associations. The memorabilia compiled by Summers is annotated with handwritten notes, sketches and collages that illustrate the artist's eccentric personality.

      Source of title proper: Based on the nature of the documents.

      Dates of creation: Many documents contained in the scrapbooks are undated.

      Physical condition: The documents are fragile and their pages brittle.

      Language: The documents collected in the scrapbooks are in English, French, Swedish and Arabic, but primarily in English.

      • M2014.108.1.3 Scraps [scrapbook]. - 1901-1941, predominant 1919-1937. - 1 textual record ; 39.5 x 26.5 cm.

      • Digitized document
      • Scope and Content: This scrapbook traces the career of Willie Eckstein, primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to press clippings promoting his concerts in Montreal venues (Piccadilly, Empress, Loews, Carioca, Strand, Rivoli, Corona, Château Sainte-Rose, etc.), other ads also announce his theremin performances in city stores like Eaton's, Lavigueur and Hutchison, and C. Robitaille.

        This scrapbook also contains correspondence recounting Willie Eckstein's private concerts for rich Montreal families, like those of Sir Mortimer Barnett Davis and Sir Hugh Andrew Montagu Allan, to celebrate the visits of the Prince of Wales (1919) and Prince and Princess Takamatsu of Japan (1931).

        Other letters and concert programs provide information about the pianist's philanthropic efforts, which included performing at fundraisers for various charities like the Shriners Hospital, the Grace Dart Hospital, the works of Sister Bonneau and the Junior League.

        Sheet music dating from the Second World War also illustrates the artist's patriotism in his compositions "Churchill and Roosevelt," "Cheers for the C.P.C." and "The 'V' Song."

        Finally, the scrapbook contains photographs of Willie Eckstein from various eras along with genealogical notes about his family.

        Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the document.

        Language: The documents in the scrapbook are in English and French, but primarily in English.

      • M2014.108.1.4 Scraps [scrapbook]. - [ca 1893], 1938-1942. - 1 textual record ; 40 x 28.2 cm.

      • Digitized document
      • Scope and Content: Assembled by Willie Eckstein during the mid-20th century, that is, between 1938 and 1942, this scrapbook contains documents associated with the pianist's professional activities. Other than the letter from a Toronto Star journalist and a photograph of the artist as a young boy, the album consists mainly of press clippings about Willie Eckstein's performances for soldiers, veterans and charities. These articles publicize his composition "The 'V' Song," an ode to democracy that was written to rally opposition to the rise of fascism in Europe during the Second World War. Identified articles come from both French- and English-language newspapers like the Montreal Daily Herald, the Toronto Daily Star, The Monitor and La Patrie.

        Source of title proper: Based on the title of the document.

        Language: The documents in the scrapbook are in English and French, but primarily in English.

      • M2014.108.1.5 My life is (mostly) in your hands (with apologies to Eddie Cantor) [scrapbook]. - 1917-1931. - 1 textual record ; 46.5 x 36 cm.

      • Digitized documents: Part 01 - Part 02 - Part 03

      • Scope and Content: This scrapbook was compiled by Charles "Chas" Summers, a very close friend of Willie Eckstein. A pianist and organist, he was initially a member of the Eckstein Jazz Orchestra with Willie's brother Jack, but later performed as a duo with Jack in numerous Montreal venues. Although Summers eventually moved to Buffalo, he and Willie enjoyed a lifelong friendship. The scrapbook contains memorabilia that Summers himself glued into the album and annotated, like press clippings, musical scores and photographs, but it also features testimonials from many friends and celebrities, including actress Texas Guinan, jazz singer Del Porter, composer and pianist Russel Robinson, and the prestidigitator Mr. Bokou.

        Chas appears to be a bit of an eccentric and this document marvellously illustrates his outsized, gregarious personality, while at the same time reflecting the vibrancy of the nightclub scene in Montreal and the United States. Several sketches, collages and satirical articles complete this scrapbook.

        Source of title proper: Based on the title of the document.

        Language: The documents in the scrapbook are in English and French, but primarily in English.

        General note: For unknown reasons, this scrapbook remained in the hands of Willie Eckstein. In 1959, Charles Summers wrote to his friend asking him to return it the next time he was in Buffalo.

    • P767/B6 Newspapers and press clippings

  • P767/C Photographs


Last update: March 29, 2019