Lieutenant Gitz Rice, singer, entertainer, songwriter and pianist (1891-1947)

Photograph of Lieutenant Gitz Rice in uniform

The name of Lieutenant Gitz Ingraham Rice is most closely associated with the patriotic songs he wrote during the First World War, and with the concert parties that became a big part of building the morale of Canadian troops in the trenches in Europe.

Rice was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1891. He moved to Montréal to study at the McGill Conservatory and subsequently joined the Army's First Canadian Contingent as a gunnery officer. During the First World War, he was posted to active service in Europe, where he fought in several battles, including those at Ypres, the Somme and Vimy Ridge.

Rice was one of the many Canadian soldiers and army officers who soon found themselves taking on the additional important service of organizing and performing in home-grown stage shows, to entertain their fellow soldiers on the front lines between battles.

The forerunner of these military "concert parties" was the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Comedy Company, for which Rice sometimes played the piano. This first entertainment troupe was formed in May 1916.

Rice and the other soldiers who took part in the Princess Pat's Comedy Company and similar troupes, were better suited to these activities than were professional entertainers, as they did not require extra pay and they were already trained for the dangers of the front lines. The soldier-entertainers wrote and rehearsed new material during lulls in active duty.

Cover of sheet music for DEAR OLD PAL OF MINE, featuring a signed photograph of Lieutenant Gitz Rice

Sheet music of "Dear Old Pal of Mine"

It was in this way that, in addition to singing and playing the piano for the concert parties, Rice turned his hand to songwriting. Rice became known for hit songs such as "Dear Old Pal of Mine", in which a soldier laments his absence from his girlfriend. The first line states, "All my life is empty, since I went away"; and the refrain affirms the soldier's loneliness: "Oh, how I want you, dear old pal".

Rice's song was popularized by the singer John McCormack, who adopted it as his signature tune. It is a typical popular song of the First World War era and was recorded variously as a ballad, a waltz and a foxtrot, as well as being released in sheet-music form. Rice was on active duty in Ypres, Belgium, when he composed the theme of this song.

"Dear Old Pal" got even more exposure, along with another of Rice's patriotic war-time compositions, "On the Road That Leads to Home", as part of the army recruitment play, Getting Together, which was staged in New York City in 1918. A later edition of the Edison Amberol Records newsletter said about "Dear Old Pal of Mine": "It is one of those simple melodies that goes straight to the heart, and is unforgettable". The song was also recorded in French by a fellow Canadian, Hector Pellerin, on Edison Amberol Records, as "Cœur blessé".

Rice was among the earliest musicians to record on Herbert Berliner's 216000 Series, which had been launched in 1916. On this label he sang with the well-known Canadian singer Henry Burr (Harry McClaskey) and others on "'Til the World is Free", by H.S. Bell. Such patriotic songs as these enjoyed popularity after Berliner and Pathé recorded them during the First World War, in part because they expressed the feelings of the nation.

Photomontage of Lieutenant Gitz Rice and Canadian troops in France

Lt. Gitz Rice and Canadian troops in France

Some sources have also attributed the wartime ditty "Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlez-vous?" to Rice, but the authorship of this classic song is less certain. According to one version of events, Rice wrote his own lyrics to this tune, while in a café in Armentières, France in 1915. The lyrics are said to immortalize the barmaid whom he watched serving drinks to soldiers. Some days afterwards, he sang his new lyrics for the Canadian troops of the Fifth Battery, Montréal, who were stationed nearby.

Another famous wartime legend that Rice is believed to have played a part in is the singing of Christmas carols with the enemy troops one Christmas Eve in the First World War. In this story, which has been retold in various forms, a piano had been brought to the front lines to entertain the Canadian troops in the trenches. Rice is thought to have been the soldier who played "Silent Night", and first the Canadian soldiers and then the enemy Germans, began to join in, each in their own language, temporarily laying down their arms to jointly celebrate the Christmas music.

Rice was one of many soldiers who were gassed at Vimy Ridge in 1917. Although he was incorrectly reported in some sources to have died there, he was in fact invalided out. He retained the position of officer in charge of musical entertainment of troops in Canada, which involved entertaining tens of thousands of troops weekly.

Advertisement for Eckstein's recording of Lt. Gitz Rice's BURMAH MOON

Advertisement for Eckstein's recording of Lt. Gitz Rice's "Burmah Moon"; Toronto Daily Star, Aug. 15, 1919, p. 4

After the war, Rice continued to write and publish songs, and he travelled with vaudeville troupes. He also maintained professional associations with other Canadian musicians. For example, in late 1918 or early 1919, he was associated with the Henry Burr Music Corporation of New York City. By that time, Rice had made a name for himself as a successful writer of popular hits, including the wartime patriotic song "Keep Your Head Down, Fritzie Boy", the title of which was a warning to the enemy. This song became a big seller for the American Quartet with Billy Murray, who recorded it on the Victor label. Rice also recorded "Fun in Flanders", with Burr in 1918, on the Victor label.

In addition to these activities, Rice is listed among Canadian actors of the period. An audience member recalled seeing Rice in a variety show with the Marx Brothers, in a vaudeville theatre in Rhode Island, reciting the Rudyard Kipling poem "Mandalay" (Perelman, p. 624-625).

Rice continued writing songs and performing in the New York area. He joined forces with B.C. Hilliam to write the score for a stage musical, Princess Virtue, in the spring of 1921, but the show lasted only two weeks. In November 1925, he joined the Peerless Entertainers, organized by Frank Croxton (not to be confused with Burr's Peerless Quartet, with which the Peerless Entertainers competed). The Peerless Entertainers were available in New York City and for tours but, like Rice's earlier musical, this group was apparently not overly successful. In 1926, Rice again attempted a musical, this time with Werner Janssen. The show was called Nic Nax of 1926; Rice also performed in it.

Over the years, Rice also collaborated on several songs with lyricist Harold Robé, including his earlier success "Dear Old Pal of Mine", as well as "Because You're Here", and "Don't Forget You Belong to Me". Among the companies that recorded Rice's compositions was Delmar in Montréal. His other recording credits, aside from his own compositions, include making piano rolls for Ampico in the late 1920s, and singing on recordings for Victor and Pathé. Rice continued to be identified by his military rank of Lieutenant in record catalogues and listings.

Although details of Rice's later career are sketchy, it is known that he did occasionally sing and play the piano for audiences at the Maples Inn in Lakeside, Quebec (now part of Pointe Claire) in the 1940s. As well, during the Second World War, Rice again travelled to the front to entertain Canadian soldiers there. Rice died in New York, in October 1947, at the age of 56.

Selected recordings available

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