re-posted from my blog "Weird Detroit"
In the early 1900s Hughie Cannon's name in the music world was gold. He had written several hits including "Bill Bailey" and "Goo Goo Eyes" and was collecting royalties aplenty. His drinking and drug habits though decimated much of what he had worked for and he was reduced to banging out drunken tunes on barroom pianos for his drinking fare. He eventually sold the rights to most of his songs and was left penniless, divorced and in failing health when he arrived at Eloise in 1910.
He told a Detroit newspaper at the time of his admittance into the poorhouse, "I quit the coke easy. Fifteen days of jail cured me of that. I hit the pipe in New York for a year and stopped that. I went up against the morphine hard and quit, but booze, red, oily booze -- that's got me for keeps. I started when I was 16; I'm 36 now, and except for seven months on the wagon I've been pickled most of the time. It was twenty years -- twenty black, nasty sick years -- with only a little brightness now and then when I made good with some song."
His ex-wife, Emma Dorsam, confirmed Cannon's own musings in her divorce filing, "For a period commencing about a month after our marriage and continuing to the time of our separation, defendant was drunk nearly every night; he seldom if ever remained at home to spend the evening but would consort with people of evil repute and would generally come home about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning in a drunken condition." Only a few years later in 1912 he died at an Ohio infirmary from cirrhosis of the liver.
There was a story published after Cannon's death concerning the hasty writing of the hit song "Bill Bailey" and two friends of the musician who literally forced the issue. According to the legend, Cannon, needing money for a date came to the office of his publisher Howley, Haviland and Dresser and asked for a loan. Howley and Dresser told him that they would give him a loan but he would have to work for it and enticed him into the piano room. Once in they locked the door and despite his protest wouldn't open the door until he completed a song. Once the words and lyrics for "Bill Bailey were completed Howley cut him a check for $50 and Cannon bolted out the door. The yarn has been disputed as pure fiction by other writers but is a good folktale nonetheless.
There is an excellent article about the real Bill Bailey, his connection to Cannon and Bailey's ex-wife whom the song was written about. She was none too amused by the song or her former husband's wild antics. Here's Patsy Cline's version of the original ragtime classic which is most likely as far from the original as is possible but since I don't care for honky tonk it'll have to do.