The Restaurant Fire That Ended The Life Of Tom Stacks: The Most Unique Voice In Jazz -1936

The Tragic End of Tom Stacks, Star Crooner of The 1920’s

Tom StacksOnce you have heard Tom Stacks sing you would recognize his voice anywhere.

Tom Stacks was a tenor and a drummer appearing on hundreds of recordings in the 1920s and 1930s, primarily as a singer with Harry Reser’s band.

Stacks was a small man with an adolescent voice that sounded like he was singing with a perpetual smile.

Best demonstrating Stacks unique ability to turn a song into his own, is his rendition of a tune written by Richard Whiting and Byron Gay, Horses. If there was ever a novelty song with witty lyrics that epitomized the roaring twenties, this is it. (see lyrics at end of article)

Another song, Masculine Women and Feminine Men, a song written by Edgar Leslie and James V. Monaco seems more apropos for today rather than 1926. Recorded on February 13, 1926 by Harry Reser’s Six Jumping Jacks, Stacks chooses his lyrical emphasis on the right words when he sings  “girls were girls and boys and boys when I was a tot, now we don’t know who is who or what’s what.” (lyrics at end of article)

There is not much known about Tom Stacks personal life and almost nothing official has been written about him that I could find. He was born November 9, 1899 in Harrisburg, PA. Stacks joined up with Harry Reser in the early 1920s and his star began to rise. On New Year’s Day 1929 Stacks married Mary Howe in Manhattan. In April 1929 the couple bought a new home in Merrick, Long Island.

By 1936 Stacks was living in Jackson Heights, Queens and was the drummer in the five piece Earl Carpenter Orchestra. The quintet was engaged to play at Lum’s Chinese Restaurant located on the second floor of a three story building at 735 Lexington Avenue at the southeast corner of 59th Street.

On the evening of February 12, 1936, Carpenter’s band was playing and the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper reported the restaurant was packed with 300 people, about 100 of them attending a dinner given by the nearby Holy Name Society of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Peace, 229 East 62nd Street.

At 9:20 pm a fire started on the ground floor of the building which housed National Shirt Shop, a haberdashery. As smoke wafted upstairs into Lum’s slowly through the floor boards of the restaurant, many of the diners thought the smell of smoke was merely Chinese incense and were unaware of the fire burning below them.

Before the fire department arrived, a fireman who happened to be passing the scene, William Feeley, and a policeman, Captain William Mulligan noticed the fire. Feeley raced up the stairs of the restaurant and ordered everyone to calmly leave without retrieving their belongings. The patrons ignored these orders. A few moments later, a diner attracted to the sirens of the oncoming fire engines opened a window in the restaurant. The danger became apparent when one of the four patrons seated by the window jumped back from the flames that shot in and screamed “fire!” A cascade of flames quickly set the curtains on fire.

As the fire and smoke spread patrons started for the two exits, one leading to Lexington Avenue and one to 59th Street. Since it was February, some of the diners delayed leaving to first get their hats and coats. One of the coat check rooms became jammed with people.

Quickly the scene turned to panic as the crowd pushed towards the narrow stairways of the two exits and many were trampled and others were burned by the quick moving flames. People stampeded over one another to escape the inferno.

When the fire was extinguished an hour later, four people were dead and over 38 injured, among them Tom Stacks who sustained first, second and third burns around his face and hands.

Lums Chinese Restaurant Fire Lexington ave

photo: Wide World via New York Times February 13, 1936

According to Stacks stub of an entry on Wikipedia it is stated he escaped the initial blaze but returned to the restaurant to retrieve his drum set.  Searching several newspaper accounts I can find no article to substantiate that Stacks went back in to the fire. The manager of the restaurant, Harry M. Chu, did initially leave the restaurant unharmed but went back in to retrieve the receipts and cash. He was found dead near a coat room with the restaurant’s money still in his pockets.

After the fire between February 13 and March 4, five other people succumbed to their injuries, including Tom Stacks who died at the age of 36 at New York Hospital at 3:30 pm on February 19. In news stories reporting his death there was no mention of Stacks’ many years as lead singer in Reser’s band.

Tom Stacks tragic death at a young age is one of the reasons that today he has been forgotten  except to early jazz aficionados.

Fortunately Stacks’ records survive and many of his songs can be listened to on youtube or on archive.org. You can also catch Harry Reser and Tom Stacks who are played regularly on Rich Conaty’s The Big Broadcast Show heard every Sunday night from 8 pm to midnight on New York’s WFUV-FM and streaming online at WFUV.org

Lyrics to Horses (1926) words Richard Whiting /  music Byron Gay

Crazy over Horses, Horses, Horses
Nutty over Horses, Horses, Horses
Goofy over Horses, Horses, Horses
She’s a little wild

Daffy over Horses, Horses, Horses
Silly over Horses, Horses, Horses
Once I heard her call me ‘Spark Plug’ Brown Eyes too
Guess she thinks I’m a horses Barney Google

At the altar, altar, altar
May be she will falter, falter, falter,
Then I’ll get a halter, halter, halter
Just to make her mine.

A woman’s no means yes I guess
A horse’s nay is a horse’s yes

Always Horses, Horses,
Just a lot of Horses
Horses all of the time.
Whoa
Whoa
Whoa!

Lyrics to Masculine Women and Feminine Men (1926) words Edgar Leslie / music James Monaco

Masculine women, feminine men,
Which is the rooster, which is the hen?
It’s hard to tell ’em apart today! And, say!

Sister is busy learning to shave,
Brother just got a permanent wave,
It’s hard to tell ’em apart today! Hey, hey!

Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot,
Now we don’t know who’s who, even what’s what!

Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide,
Nobody knows who’s walking inside,
Those masculine women and feminine men!

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