Lemuel James Fowler - His Life and Music

 by Robert I. Pinsker

Lemuel Fowler in one of two photographs taken in New York in 1923, commissioned by the QRS music roll company for use in advertising piano rolls. From the Mike Montgomery collection, originally from QRS files.

Lemuel Fowler was a prominent songwriter and pianist of the 1920s, best known today for his most popular composition in his lifetime “He May Be Your Man (But He Comes To See Me Sometimes)” and for the incomparable series of piano rolls, entirely of his own compositions, that he made for the US Music and QRS piano roll companies between 1922 and 1931.  An aura of mystery surrounds Fowler, because he essentially disappeared from public view after about 1932, and during the revival of interest in 1920s jazz and blues that began in the 1950s and 1960s, almost nothing about Fowler’s life was found despite tenacious efforts of many researchers. It was natural that the lack of such information led some to hypothesize that Fowler had died at some point in the 1930s, including among those who had known Fowler in the 1920s. It was therefore a complete surprise to Fowler’s friend and colleague J. Lawrence Cook (1899-1976), who had edited most of Fowler’s QRS piano rolls in the 1920s, when Fowler suddenly appeared at the QRS plant in the Bronx in 1962 to ask Cook for a small loan. The next year, Cook told the historian and piano roll collector Mike Montgomery (1934-2011) that story in the course of an extensive interview Montgomery conducted with Cook, which stimulated Montgomery to search for Fowler. From then up to his death, Mike diligently followed leads in an effort to find Fowler or at least to determine what had happened to him, without success.

Some researchers speculated in the early 2000s that perhaps Lemuel Fowler had not been a real name and that perhaps some other African-American musician had been responsible for the work attributed to Fowler. This idea is reminiscent of the fact that Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis were researching “They All Played Ragtime” in 1949, some musicians they interviewed speculated that the up-to-then mysterious Joseph F. Lamb might have been a pseudonym of Scott Joplin’s, because nobody in the music business that they spoke with had ever met Lamb. This was dispelled only when Blesh and Janis discovered that Lamb was quietly living in Brooklyn, ever since the late 1910s, and that music had not been his principal occupation.

In the 21st century, the advent of optical character recognition, even for hand-written records like census enumerations, draft registrations, and the like, along with exponential growth in the scanning of historical records by organizations such as Google, Ancestry.com, and Newspapers.com led to an explosion in the range of computer indexable and searchable material, so it became increasingly likely that the mystery of Lemuel Fowler would be finally resolved. I was fortunate enough to resolve much of the mystery in 2011, when I finally located documentation of Fowler’s early life and connected the individual responsible for the music to a person documented in public records as a child. I have been adding detail and filling in missing details since then, and now on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my finding the key document it seems a good time to review what has been learned about Fowler and indicate the areas where further research may prove fruitful.

In the first set of pages I will present Fowler’s life in chronological order, while in another page, I will discuss how I arrived at these results.

Lemuel Fowler, part I: Childhood

Lemuel Fowler, part II: Chicago

Lemuel Fowler, part IV: New York - part 2 - Fowler's recording career, appearance and disappearance of Edith Smith, and the 'lost years'

Lemuel Fowler copyrights table

Lemuel Fowler discography page

Lemuel Fowler piano rollography page