On A Slow Boat to China
Writer: Frank Loesser
Mark Bittner: vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar
Katelyn Lawson: vocals
Elliana Moayedi: ukulele
Roberta Fabiano: electric guitar
Bruce Kaphan: pedal steel guitar, keyboard
Paul Olguin: bass
John Hanes: drums
“On a Slow Boat to China” is at the center of a road story I tell in my book. I was at a Labor Day dance in Mendocino during its hippie era and fell in love while dancing to a local hippie swing band’s version of the song. Prior to that, I’d been vaguely aware of “On a Slow Boat to China,” but it was my parents’ music, and I was indifferent to it. I based this version on my distant memory of that night.
Rhythm swing guitar is a particular style with which I had no experience. I bought an instruction book and worked out a part that ended up somewhere in between swing and a rock and roll shuffle. Then Paul Olguin and John Hanes added bass and drums, again, while playing together live in the studio. I knew an 11-year-old girl, Elliana Moayedi, who plays ukulele, and I thought it would be a nice touch to include her. I gave her a chord sheet, which was more advanced than what she’d learned up to that point. But her ukulele teacher helped her, she practiced hard, and we were able to add her to the basic rhythm track.
Roberta Fabbiano is the guitar player and singer in the New York-based Peter Duchin Orchestra, a society band that plays a lot of swing. I met her when I was touring in support of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and we hit it off. I asked her to record a guitar part, and she did a sterling, professional job. This seemed like another track that Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel would work well on. He came up with a great part, and later added piano.
The original recording of “On a Slow Boat to China” was done by Kay Kyser. I referred to it as I was working up my version, but they are quite different. My version is supposed to evoke a bunch of musically advanced hippies playing at a dance. In the original, a male singer takes the first verse, and a female singer takes the second. Thinking I should keep that aspect, I asked Katelyn Lawson to sing the second verse. This is even less her style of music than it is mine, but Katelyn is a great intuitive singer, and she turned in a beautiful performance.