Will Donaldson had a hand in the start of a career of one of the great American composers, but in the end did not do too badly for himself either. Born in New York to hotel keeper John H. Donaldson and his wife Rose T. Donaldson, Will was the youngest of their three surviving children out of five. He had two older sisters, Beatrice (6/1879) and Agnes (2/1883). An older brother, Edward (10/1880), died in his early twenties. By the time of the 1900 Census, John had become a shipping clerk, a position he would remain in for the rest of his life. Will's early musical training went beyond normal New York School System classes, as he attended the Pratt Institute, and was a part of the recently formed Art Students League.
By 1910 Will, still living with his family in Brooklyn, was working as a theater pianist, playing for the early Ziegfeld star Elizabeth Brice (no relation to Fannie Brice) and Adele Rowland among others. Within a few years he also accompanied early superstar Elsie Janis when she was in London in the mid-1910s. Will started making his way through both Vaudeville and movie houses over the next several years. He started arranging and producing piano rolls in 1915, and one of his first compositions appeared in 1916, and he soon had a job as arranger and plugger with Jerome H. Remick and J.B. Haviland, perhaps in a free-lance capacity. His 1917 draft record indicates him to be a composer with Haviland as his employer, and also indicates poor eyesight as a handicap that likely kept him out of the trenches in World War I.
While at Remick, Donaldson met and befriended 16-year-old George Gershwin who had been hired the prior year as a song plugger. Gershwin had repeatedly been thwarted in his efforts to get his employer, or more directly manager Mose Gumble, to do anything with his own compositions. Donaldson helped him in some way with George's only rag, Rialto Ripples, making it the sole Remick publication of a Gershwin tune at that time. Will's role is unclear, whether it be as an arranger making the piece playable for the average player, or actually adding some content to the challenging work. In any case, he got co-credit for the rag, and Gershwin got the boot soon after by Gumble who made it clear he should "leave composing to the composers." Donaldson was a friend and admirer of Gershwin for many years thereafter, as noted in later correspondence between the two men.
Having proven himself as a capable song writer, in addition to composing some interesting instrumentals, one being the well regarded syncopated waltz The Original Chateau Three Step, Donaldson was readily able to get music into print for several years. However, he was also a very capable pianist, and did some audio recordings for a couple of companies, including Edison's Diamond Disc label. Even before he was in print, at some point around 1915 Will started working with Rythmodik Music Corporation, a branch of the Aeolian Piano Roll Company. According to roll historian Robert Perry there is a good chance Will was on staff, as his name showed up on a number of "hand-played" rolls in the capacity of arranger or perhaps third hand; "Assisted by W.E.D." For his first two years this was pretty much exclusively applied to rolls recorded by Pete Wendling, but by the time Aeolian dropped their Rythmodik line in late 1920 he had appeared with other artists as well. Only one Rythmodik roll credits him as the sole artist, playing his own piece Everybody's Crazy Over Dixie in 1919. One of the people he likely met during these years was artist Muriel Pollock who would become his wife around 1933. There is no indication he was ever involved in the creation or editing of her piano roll performances.
As of 1920 Will was still living with his mother Rose and sister Beatrice, listed simply as a composer of music. It was in this year that a number of New York songwriters, including publisher Ted Shapiro and lyricists Nat Vincent and Billy Baskette pooled their talent into a stage show called A Trip to Hitland. The sheet music shows anywhere from eight to ten names for composer credit on each piece. In spite of the title, it turned out no hits. After a couple of dry years, Will had a strong showing in 1923, the same year that he joined ASCAP, which had been founded in 1914. In addition to working with Jo Trent on pieces that would be included at one point or another in the hit musical Runnin' Wild, which introduced the Charleston into the world, he co-wrote Oh Sister, Ain't That Hot, which became a substantial jazz age hit still performed and recorded in the 21st century.
The following year Will took a 1920s catch phrase and with a couple of lyricists turned it into another hit, Doo Wacka Do, a term that eventually became as annoying to some as "vo-de-o-do" due to its frequent usage. Around 1926, Will, who had been a movie pianist off and on, started composing some works specifically for film performance, including one for what became a series spanning silent and sound films, The Cohens and Kellys. Some of his works were spread out over a series of folios released in 1928. In 1927, and some historians speculate even earlier, he co-composed a tune with Duke Ellington called The Gold Digger, part of the Ellington play book for many years. One group that Donaldson was briefly involved with was the Edisongsters, a male trio with Will as the accompanist and arranger. They were broadcast as an Edison Radio presentation every Monday evening. The singers were Jack Parker, Frank Luther and Phil Dewey. Another group active into the 1930s was the Men About Town, for which he performed and ultimately created over 2000 vocal arrangements.
In the late 1920s and later Will was working as a voice coach for radio artists, and was also involved with either writing commercial jingles or adapting them. Among them was a song for the Wonder Bread company used often on the radio. ASCAP records indicate, although it is hard to confirm for certain, that he likely adapted the popular song Mm Mm Good into the well known jingle used to this day by Campbell Soups. Donaldson had gotten married around 1926. However, the 1930 enumeration shows him lodging in Manhattan alone. As it turns out, his wife was ill for some time, and lost her battle in January of 1934. It is unclear, however, if they were still married at that time. It appears that he married his musical sweetheart Muriel Pollock around 1933, but if not, their son Theodore (Ted) Donaldson who was born in August of that year, may have been with Will's first wife. This remains unclear in the research.
Will, like Muriel, traveled back and forth for a few years between Hollywood and New York, depending on the type of engagements they were needed for. However, with a regular radio broadcast and Broadway appearances, many with her musical "Lady Bug" partner Vee Lawnhurst, Muriel was mostly grounded in New York City for the decade. The 1940 enumeration taken in Manhattan showed the couple and their son living on West 55th, both listed as musicians working in broadcasting. With Muriel he wrote The Boys and Girls Quiz Book in 1940. Will's 1942 draft card, also taken in Manhattan, showed him working for Air Features Incorporated (AFI), a clearing house and distribution arm of the American Federation of Radio Artists which would later become AFTRA. Around 1942 or 1943 the Donaldsons relocated to California for good, and Will became known as a vocal coach for the Hollywood studios, as well as finding work with both movie and recording studios. Even the Donaldson's son Ted had become a stage and radio actor when he was four in New York, eventually appearing in some movies as a talented child performer. His big screen debut was with Cary Grant in 1943. The family lived at 1422 N. Alta Vista Blvd. in Los Angeles throughout most of the 1940s and 1950s.
After the war Will spent his remaining years living in Hollywood, passing on at the end of 1954. On July 1, 1955, Muriel and Ted donated the Will Donaldson Collection of Theodore Drieser Books and Manuscripts to the UCLA Special Collections Department. Muriel survived Will until 1971 when she died at age 76. Thanks to sheet music and the magic of piano rolls, records and films, the important legacy of Will and Muriel remains with us.
Thanks go to New Zealand piano roll historian Robert Perry who contributed information on Donaldson's involvement with Rythmodik.