Great Moments In Texas Music – Dooley Wilson

“Play it again, Sam” – Dooley Wilson on Piano
When you talk to movie buffs about their favorite all-time films, the one everyone places near the top is Casablanca, the 1942 love story starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. But few know that a East Texan by name of Dooley Wilson played a significant role in the film – not necessarily as a part of the plot, but as the piano player who sang “As Time Goes By,” the classic which ranks among film’s top movie songs. An African-American, Wilson was born as Arthur Wilson on April 3, 1886, in Tyler. He started off singing in minstrel shows at age 12.  He reportedly played in black clubs around Tyler before moving to Chicago, where he earned his nickname in 1908, as a result of his signature Irish folk song, “Mr. Dooley” while playing at the Pekin Theater. He performed the role in whiteface.
Because of his role in Casablanca, history has forever associated Dooley Wilson with the piano. But Dooley never played one. He only sang and played the drums. In fact, although he is best known today for his singing and acting, during the 1920s Dooley Wilson was regarded as possibly the most talented drummer in the world.
In 1919 Dooley formed a band and went to Harlem, where they were a big sensation. A tour of Europe soon resulted, with long engagements in Paris, London, and Berlin. For ten years the band traveled across the Atlantic to tour Europe, starting and ending each tour aboard luxury cruise ships, where they earned their passage by performing.
Back in New York, Dooley’s rich voice and charismatic charm kept him busy on and off Broadway for the next two decades. During the depression, when times were hard, Dooley – in his 40s – managed to send his parents in Tyler $2 or more every week to help them get by – back when $1 was a day‘s pay in the cotton fields.
He performed with Orson Welles and John Houseman in Federal Theater productions and performed on Broadway into the early forties, when his breakthrough appearance came in the role of Little Joe, a stereotypical lazy rascal in the hit musical, “Cabin in the Sky.” He also played an escaped slave in “Bloomer Girl” and his performance of the song, “The Eagle and Me” was included in the Smithsonian’s compilation of greatest American theater songs.
While Casablanca established Dooley’s reputation on the silver screen, it wasn’t his first film. He had already played in more than twenty pictures when the Casablanca film came along. For his role, he was paid $350 a week.
If you remember the film, Sam was a singer and pianist employed by Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to entertain guests at his cabaret and drinking establishment.
“As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfield, appears as a continuing musical and emotional theme throughout the film.
In the film, Wilson as Sam performs several other songs for the café audience: “It Had To Be You”, “Shine”, “Knock On Wood”, and “Parlez-moi d’amour”. Dooley’s rendition of the “As Time Goes By” is remembered as much for its quality as it is for its cinematic associations.
A few years ago, a television show ranked the movies’ top songs – and “As Time Goes By” was among the top three, along with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Singing in the Rain.”
Since Dooley didn’t play the piano, his playing in the film was actually done by Elliott Carpenter, who was placed on the set where Wilson could see him and imitate his hand movements. The only black people on the Casablanca set, Wilson and Carpenter remained lifelong friends.
Dooley almost didn’t get the Casablanca role. Ella Fitzgerald, a popular singer in the forties, was considered for the part and Dooley’s Sam might have been Ella’s Molly.
Ironically, Humphrey Bogart’s role as saloon owner Rick was originally supposed to be a young Ronald Reagan. George Raft, another popular actor in the forties, was a second choice. When both turned the role down, Bogart was selected.
Dooley Wilson died in 1953 in Los Angeles at age 67.  (GATOR)

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