1920′s Blues


ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Hersal ThomasHersal BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Sippie WallaceMurder's Gonna be My CrimeThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Hociel ThomasWorried Down With The BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
George Thomas Fast Stuff BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Moanin' Bernice EdwardsLong Tall Mama The Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Bernice Edwards, Black Boy Shine & Howling SmithHot Mattress Stomp The Piano Blues Vol. 11: Texas Santa Fe 1934-1937
Bert Mays Michigan River Blues Down In Black Bottom
Bert Mays You Can't Come In Down In Black Bottom
Fred Adams & Bilikin Johnson Frisco BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas 1927-1929
Texas Bill Day & Bilikin JohnsonElm Street Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Texas Bill Day Good Morning Blues The Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas 1927-1929
Hattie HudsonDoggone My Good Luck Soul Dallas Alley Drag
Jack RangerTP Window Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Jack RangerThieving Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Bessie TuckerThe Katy Dallas Alley Drag
Bessie TuckerPenitentiaryI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1
Ida May MackElm Street BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas 1927-1929
Ida May MackGoodbye Rider Barrelhouse Mamas
Whistlin Moore AlexHeart Wrecked Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Whistlin Moore AlexBlue Bloomer Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Whistlin Moore AlexIce Pick Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Black Ivory KingThe Flying CrowBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Duskey DaileyThe Flying CrowThe Piano Blues Vol. 10: Territory Blues 1934-1941
Frank TannehillRolling Stone BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 10: Territory Blues 1934-1941
Black Boy Shine Dog House BluesBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Black Boy Shine Ice Pick And Pistol Woman BluesBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Black Boy Shine Brown House BluesBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Joe PullumCows, See That Train Comin'Joe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935
Joe PullumMcKinney Street StompJoe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935
Rob Cooper West Dallas DragThe Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport 1934-1937
Joe PullumHard-Working Man BluesJoe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935
Joe PullumDixie My HomeJoe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935

Show Notes:

Back when I started this show in 2007 one of the first programs I did was one devoted to the pre-war Texas piano tradition. My interest in this was sparked again recently when I was doing research and writing the notes for a reissue of pianist Buster Pickens long out-of-print album for the Document label (just reissued  as Edwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 Sessions).  Pickens was an active member of the  'Santa Fe group' of pianists, knew all players but unlike some of them did not get the opportunity to record until the post-war era. In our two-part feature on Texas piano I'll be spotlighting the tradition in more depth that I did the first time out, surveying both  pre-war and post-war artists.

Hersal Thomas
Hersal Thomas

The Texas piano tradition flowered in the 1920’s and was at its peak during the 1930’s when a number of the tradition’s best players were recorded. Paul Oliver observed that “Texas was as rich in piano blues as Mississippi was in guitar blues” and “a cursory glance through the discographies will emphasize the fact that a remarkable number of blues pianists came from Texas." The pianists can be roughly grouped into schools; there was the remarkable Thomas family who made the bulk of their recordings between 1923 and 1928, one based around Dallas which included Whistlin Alex Moore, a regional style that developed around Shreveport and the so-called 'Santa Fe group' who were based in the southwestern part of the state where the cities of Galveston, Houston and Richmond lie. Today’s show is part one of a two-part feature, spotlighting recordings made between 1925 and 1941.

As piano expert Francis Smith noted: “With the two major recording centers of New York and Chicago a thousand miles to the North, it was extremely fortunate that so many pianists of this important close knit Texas group were recorded—all three record companies of the time being involved.” The three companies were Columbia, Victor and Vocalion in addition to Bluebird and Okeh. These companies, either singularly or in various combinations, made field trips to Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio between 1927 and 1941.

The early Texas piano tradition was based around the remarkable Thomas family who made the bulk of their recordings between 1923 and 1928. The music sounds quite different from those who recorded in the 30's. As David Evans states: “It is likely that no family has contributed more personalities to blues history than the Thomas family of Houston, Texas, whose famous members included George W. Thomas, his sister Beulah “Sippie” Wallace, their brother Hersal Thomas, George’s daughter Hociel Thomas, and Moanin’ Bernice Edwards who was raised up in the family.”

Hersal, is described by Francis Smith: "That Hersal, the child prodigy, was a highly influential pianist among his peers there is no doubt; even though he left Houston in his very early 'teens he had established a reputation there which remains still in the folk memory."Hersal was busy between 1925 & 1926 cutting a dozen titles with Hociel, fifteen with Sippie and backing singers Lillian Mller and Sodarisa Miller. Hersal died tragically at the age of 16 in 1926 of food poisoning.

Hersal's older brother George also left behind a slim legacy; a few jazz titles with his Muscle Shoals Devils, some sides backing singer Tiny Franklin, a recording of "The Rocks" made in 1922 under the name Clay Custer and the coupling ""Don't Kill Him In Here" from 1929 and our selection “Fast Stuff Blues."

Moanin' Bernice Edwards possessed a beautiful, deep, lowdown voice and piano style  that fell within the Santa Fe school of pianists. Edwards waxed twelve sides for Paramount in 1928 and six more for Vocalion in 1935.

Whistlin  Alex Moore: West Texas WomanDallas was the home of a number of distinctive piano players and singers they accompanied. Among them were Texas Bill Day, Neal Roberts, Willie Tyson, Whistlin' Alex Moore and singer Billiken Johnson. The hub of the black community was an area known as Central Tracks, where honky-tonks 'saloons, beer-parlours and brothels were wedged between warehouses, furniture stores and places of entertainment like Ella B. Moore's Park Theatre, or Hattie Burleson's dance hall. In addition many railroads whose names are familiar to blues collectors had termini there. It's not surprising that the railroad figure prominently in the blues of Dallas.

Not much is known about several of the Dallas pianists. Pianist/singer Texas Bill Day cut six sides for Columbia. Tyson cut two solo piano numbers for Columbia in 1927 which went unissued. The next day he backed singer Hattie Hudson on “Black Hand Blues” and the classic “Doggone My Good Luck Soul.” Tyson also backed Gertrude Perkins, Bilikin Johnson and Lillian Glinn. Jack Ranger cut three songs for Okeh in Dallas in 1929. it's unknown if he accompanies himself on piano but he was a sensitive singer and songwriter.

Pianist K.D. Johnson became famous backing the outstanding Texas singers Bessie Tucker and Ida May Mack. Johnson backs them on their legendary session for Victor on August 29th and 30th 1928 in Memphis. He was remembered as '49' by Alex Moore and not only did Mack call him 'Mr. 49' during his solos, she even named a song after him called "Mr. Forty-Nine Blues."

The most famous of the Dallas pianists was Alex Moore. Of Moore, Paul Oliver wrote: "He is a true original, a folk blues singer of the city who can sit at the piano improvise endlessly piano themes and blues verses that are sometimes startling, sometimes comic, sometimes grim, and very often pure poetry." Moore began performing in the early '20s, playing clubs and parties around his hometown of Dallas. In 1929, he recorded his first sessions for Columbia Records and also accompanied several artists on record. Moore didn't record again until 1937, when he made a few records for Decca.

Around Shreveport another regional style flourished. Among the pianists who recorded from this region were Dave Alexander who recorded as Black Ivory King and Duskey Dailey. Both recorded in 1937 with Dailey cutting an additional session in 1939. Both men cut version of a regional railroad number called “The Flying Crow.”

Two pianists who fall outside the Texas piano schools are Bert Mays and Frank Tannehill. Mays recorded four titles for Paramount in Chicago in 1927. He cut a final ten sides in 1928 and 1929 for Vocalion although only two were released. Tannehill was born in Austin and made his debut backing Perry Dickson in 1932. Under his own name he recorded for Vocalion in Chicago in 1937, in 1938 for Bluebird in San Antonio and a final session in Dallas in 1941.

Joe Pullum: Dixie Is My HomeIn part two of our feature we'll be going more in depth into the recordings of the Santa Fe group but we do feature a number of songs today by men associated with that group. ARC Records made field recordings in 1936 in San Antonio where they recorded Harold Holiday, known as Black Boy Shine. He was one of the acknowledged leaders among the Santa Fe group of pianists. He recorded more prolifically then the rest; cutting 18 issued sides in 1936 and 1937.

Among the best of the Santa Fe group were Andy Boy of Galveston and Rob Cooper of Houston. Andy Boy had a rough, expressive voice offset with his sprightly blues piano laced with ragtime flourishes. He waxed eight sides in 1937 under his own name as well as backing singer Joe Pullum on eleven sides in 1935 and the obscure Walter 'Cowboy' Washington.

Rob Cooper was an accomplished pianist with strong links to ragtime and stride piano. He also recorded behind the popular singer Joe Pullum on three sessions in 1934, 1935 and 1936. He recorded two version of “West Dallas Drag”, his version of the seminal, technically complex Santa Fe number “The Ma Grinder.”

 

 

 

 

Share
ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Ann Cook Mama Cookie Sizzling The Blues
Wilmer Davis Gut StruggleRichard M. Jones and the Blues Singers 1923-1938

Original Washboard Band & Julie Davis Geechie River Blues Johnny Dodds 1927-1928
Blanche Johnson Galveston BluesElzadie Robinson Vol. 1 1926-1928
Ida May MackMr. Forty-Nine Blues Texas Girls 1926-1929
Dorothy Everetts Macon BluesFemale Blues Singers Vol. 6: E/F/G 1922-1928)
Madlyn Davis & Her Hot Shots Kokola BluesFemale Blues Singers Vol. 5 C/D/E 1921-1928
Madlyn Davis & Her Hot Shots Winter BluesFemale Blues Singers Vol. 5 C/D/E 1921-1928
Bertha Ross Lost Man BluesBarrelhouse Woman Vol. 1 1925-1930
Dolly Martin All Men Blues St. Louis Barrelhouse Piano 1929-1934
Luella MillerFrisco BluesLuella Miller 1926-1928
Viola McCoy I Ain't Gonna Marry, Ain't Gonna Settle DownViola McCoy Vol. 2 1924-1926
Edith WilsonEvil BluesAin't Gonna Settle Down: The Pioneering Blues of Mary Stafford and Edith Wilson
Edna Winston I Got A Mule To RideLeona Williams & Edna Winston 1922-1927
Sylvester Hannah Michigan River Blues Fletcher Henderson & The Blues Singers 1923-1924
Margaret Carter I Want Plenty Grease In My Frying Pan Vaudeville Blues
Ora AlexanderRider Needs a Fast HorseFemale Blues Singers Vol. 1 A/B 1924-1932
Maggie Jones North Bound BluesMaggie Jones Vol. 1 1923-1925
Monette Moore House Rent BluesMonette Moore Vol. 1 1923-1924
Ruby Gowdy Florida Flood BluesFemale Blues Singers, Vol. 6: E/F/G 1922-1928
Rosie Mae Moore Staggering BluesI Can't Be Satisfied: Early American Blues Singers Vol. 1
Bessie Mae Smith Mean Bloodhound BluesSt. Louis Bessie & Alice Moore Vol. 1 1927-1929
Nellie Florence Jacksonville BluesChocolate To The Bone
Marie Grinter East and West BluesFemale Blues Singers Vol. 7 G/H 1922-1929
Martha CopelandPolice BluesMartha Copeland Vol. 1 1923-1927
Hattie Snow Make That Gravel FlyMeaning In The Blues
Elzadie Robinson Elzadie's Policy BluesParamount Jazz
Ida May Mack Elm Street BluesTexas Girls 1926-1929
Bessie TuckerThe KatyBessie Tucker 1928 - 1929
Bertha Henderson Black Bordered LetterParamount Jazz
Ora BrownJinx Blues Blues Images Vol. 9
Fanny May Goosby Fortune Teller BluesFemale Blues Singers 7 G/H 1922- 1929
Genevieve Davis Haven't Got A Dollar To Pay Your House Rent ManWhen the Sun Goes Down
Liza BrownPeddlin' BluesBessie Brown 1925-1929 & Liza Brown 1929

Show Notes:

Woman blues singers seem to get shortchanged when it comes to interest among blues fans or reissue companies. I'm not talking about heavy hitters like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, but the dozens and dozens of fine singers who recorded in their shadows during the 1920's and 30's. This show is dedicated to singers like Ida May Mack, Elzadie Robinson, Bessie Tucker, Madlyn Davis and others; in some cases they recorded dozens of sides or just a handful, some were quite popular in their day while other achieved little or no success yet they cut some exceptional blues records that, outside of collectors, remain all but forgotten today.

As researcher Don Kent wrote: "In the late 1890's, an amateur folklorist in Frankfort, Kentucky, heard a black woman in the county workhouse do a melancholy song called a 'jailhouse moan'. In 1902, traveling with a tent show, the young Ma Rainey heard a woman in Missouri do a 'strange and poignant' song (which Ma immediately incorporated in her act) that she later identified as a 'blues'. Nearly a decade passed before this style gained any real prominence, but Mamie Smith's first recording in 1920 showed record companies that black people were anxious and willing to buy music by their peers. Ironically, although Mamie Smith started the blues bandwagon, her repertoire was more indicative of black vaudeville and cabaret singers who included blues and pseud0-blues among their performance pieces."

Bertha-Henderson- Black-Bordered-LetterThe "Classic Female Blues" era as it's generally called, spanned from 1920 to 1929 with its peak from 1923 to 1925. The most popular of these singers were Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith and Trixie Smith. As Paul Oliver notes: "One of the records that helped launch the issue of so-called 'Race Records'…was Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues.' It was to the benefit of many other black woman singers that a black woman had at last broke into what had previously been an exclusively white market. During the decade after the release of this record, more than 200 women singers were recorded and their songs issued on Race Records. Several of them made more than a hundred titles each, and a great many made a few dozen. In addition, there were those who made just a handful of titles that were often of great interest, nonetheless." In 1921 blues singers such as Lillyn Brown, Lavinia Turner, Lucille Hegamin, Daisey Martin all made records. In January 1922 Metronome declared that "every phonograph company has a colored girl recording blues." Of course woman like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox had been singing the blues for years, mainly in the South, in circuses like Miller's 101 Ranch, The Mighty Haag Circus, Vaudeville stages and minstrel shows like Sugar Foot Greene's Minstrel Show, Silas Green from New Orleans and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

Several of today artists got their start in vaudeville, black theater or worked primarily fronting jazz bands.  In this category we hear from Viola McCoy, Edith Wilson, Ann Cook and Julia Davis.

In the early 1920s, Viola McCoy moved to New York City, where she worked in cabarets and appeared in revues at the Lincoln and Lafayette Theaters. She toured the Theater Owners Bookers Association vaudeville circuit, and made numerous recordings between 1923–1929 for various labels including Gennett, Vocalion, and Columbia Records.Author Derrick Stewart-Baxter wrote of McCoy: "She belongs to the great vaudeville tradition, but in all she does there is a strong jazz strain … Possessing a lovely contralto voice and fine diction, she was able to project herself through even the worst recording … It would be true to say that in the three years she was recording most prolifically she hardly ever made a bad record".Nellie Florence - Jacksonville-Blues

Edith Wilson was one of the stars of early African-American musical theater. After working in vaudeville with her pianist brother Danny Wilson, Edith rose to prominence in 1921 when she replaced Mamie Smith in Perry Bradford's musical revue "Put And Take". Bradford arranged for her to begin recording with Columbia in 1921. She was paired with Johnny Dunn's Jazz Hounds for a series of 17 recordings made in 1921 and 1922. Wilson would make few recordings in subsequent years until she made her comeback in the 1970s.

Nothing much is known about Ann Cook and Julia Davis other then they were exceptional singers who were recorded fronting jazz bands. We hear the great Johnny Dodds backing singer Julia Davis who cut one 78 for Paramount in 1924 and one final terrific record in 1928, "Jasper Taylor Blues b/w Geechie River Blues", backed by the Original Washboard Band featured washboard player Jasper Taylor.  Ann Cook was a New Orleans singer who recorded a couple of songs in 1927 backed by a band that included Louis Dumaine on Cornet, Willie Joseph on Clarinet, Leonard Mitchell on Banjo and Morris Rouse on Piano. Cook was recorded again in the 1940's.

Several of today's featured singers fall in the down-home blues category of singing. Among those are Madlyn Davis, Elzadie Robinson. Ida Mae Mack, Bessie Tucker, Bessie Mae Smith and Nellie Florence.

Madlyn Davis made ten recordings in Chicago, for Paramount Records, with her first session taking place in June 1927. In October 1928, Davis had her final recording stint, with her backing musicians including Georgia Tom Dorsey on piano and Tampa Red on guitar. Her most famous song was "Kokola Blues", obviously mistitled at the time. Scrapper Blackwell recorded it the following year as "Kokomo Blues". In 1934 Kokomo Arnold called his version "Old Original Kokomo Blues". Two years later Robert Johnson turned it in to "Sweet Home Chicago", and the rest is history.

Vocalist Elzadie Robinson hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana, but remained in Chicago, after going there to record. Her recordings span 1926-29, and during that time she worked with several pianists including Bob Call, and her regular accompanist and fellow Shreveport native, Will Ezell. Robinson chiefly recorded for the Paramount label, but also cut several sides for Broadway and used the aliases Bernice DRosie Mae Moore - Staggering Bluesrake and Blanche Johnson.

Ida May Mack was a Texas singer who traveled by train to Memphis, Tennessee in the summer of 1928 along with Bessie Tucker and Charlie Kyle to record. Mack made at least ten recordings with multiple takes of some, only six sides were issued by her at the time. Little is known about Bessie Tucker. Tucker had another session in Dallas the following year, once again backed by Johnson on piano as well as other area musicians. No one knows what happened to her after her recording sessions and unlike most of her peers of the day, one photo of her survives.

Little is known about Rosie Mae Moore except for the fact that she was Charlie McCoy's girlfriend during the time of her recordings that all took place in 1928. She recorded four sides for Victor in Memphis in the early part of the year. Later in December she recorded four more sides for Brunswick in New Orleans, backed by McCoy as well as Walter Vincson and Bo Chatman of The Mississippi Shieks. On her Brunswick releases she was billed as Mary Butler.

Bessie Mae Smith recorded variously as St. Louis Bessie, Blue Belle and Streamline Mae. Her 18 sides recorded between 1927-1930.

Share
ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Andrew and Jim Baxter K.C. Railroad BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Mississippi John Hurt FrankieAvalon Blues: The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings
Blue Boys Easy WinnerBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Charlie Butler Diamond JoeA Treasury Of Library Of Congress Field Recordings
Geeshie Wiley Last Kind Words BluesMississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35
Lottie Kimbrough Wayward Girl BluesBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Richard ''Rabbit'' Brown I'm Not JealousNever Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull & Long ''Cleve'' Reed Don't You Leave Me HereThe Songster Tradition 1927-1935
Willie Walker Dupree BluesMy Rough And Rowdy Ways Vol. 1
Joe Evans & Arthur McClain Two White Horses In A LineBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Mississippi Mud Steppers Jackson StompVintage Mandolin Music
Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe Greenville StrutRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands
Henry Thomas Fox And The HoundsTexas Worried Blues 1927-1929
Henry Thomas Red River BluesTexas Worried Blues 1927-1929
Lil McClintock Furniture ManBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Gus Cannon Can You Blame The Colored ManMasters of Memphis Blues
Luke Jordan Traveling CoonThe Songster Tradition 1927-1935
Jim Jackson I'm Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own Jim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Jim Jackson I'm A Bad Bad Man Jim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Jaybird Coleman I'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan - Some O' These DaysAmerican Primitive Vol. I: Raw Pre-War Gospel
Papa Charlie JacksonLong Gone Lost JohnBroadcasting The Blues
LeadbellyBlack Girl (In The Pines)Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 1
Crying Sam Collins My Road Is Rough And RockyCrying Sam Collins 1927-1931
Jaybird ColemanI'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan - Some O' These DaysAmerican Primitive Vol. 1
Cannon''s Jug Stompers Bring It When You ComeRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands
Coley Jones Traveling ManThe Great Race Record Labels Vol. 2 - Columbia
William Moore Tillie LeeRagtime Guitar Blues 1927-1930
Cow Cow Davenport Alabama Strut Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here
Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley Papa's 'Bout To Get MadGood for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Show
Alabama Sheiks Travelin' Railroad Man BluesViolin, Sing The Blues For Me
Charlie Patton Gonna Move To AlabamaBlues Images Vol. 4
Tennessee Chocolate Drops Vine Street DragBefore The Blues Vol. 2
Birmingham Jug Band Bill WilsonRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1: The Great Jug Bands
Dallas String Band Dallas RagBefore The Blues Vol. 2

Show Notes:

Today's program is a long delayed sequel to a show I did almost exactly two years ago. I finally got motivated to do a follow-up after several interesting conversations with Stephen Wade who I interviewed on the show a couple of weeks back. In his book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us, he discusses some of the music floating around before the blues emerged as the dominant black popular music and also illustrates the huge amount of cross pollination there was between white and black music. Wade suggested that to really illustrate this cross pollination I should include some white artists. While I agree with this, the focus on this show has always  focused on African-American music, namely the music that falls in the standard blues discographies. Still you can hear the commingling of white and black music in selections today by Joe Evans and Arthur McClain (The Two Poor Boys), Mississippi Mud Steppers and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops among others.

Henry Thomas: The Fox And The HoundsAs Richard Nevins writes: "Before the Civil War there did not exist in America two distinct bodies of music, one white and one black. Both groups shared a common tradition and repertoire. …Throughout most of the 1800's black and white fiddlers were playing the same tunes the same way, white and black banjo players were playing the same tunes the  same  way …black and white guitar players were doing the same tunes in the same exact tunings …and most importantly of all, white and black fundamentalist church congregations were singing the same hymns in the same limited modal scales, the exact same scales that defined the secular ballads of that  time …and later (1910-20) became the melodic base of what was to become the blues."

"Before The Blues" is something of catch-all phrase that can mean a number of things; the fact is that prior to the blues there was quite a bit of black music on record, stretching all the way back to the 1890's, recorded both in the United States and Europe. Recent years have seen a huge amount of research into this period with several important books ( Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs", and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 and Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America 1850-1920 to name a few) and and reissues of early black music issued. What I'm talking about, however, is some of the older black music styles that were captured on record in the 1920's, often labeled blues even though it was clearly something different.

In the 1920's and 30's when black music first came on record blues scholar Paul Oliver noted that "for a dozen years a remarkable documentation of black vocal traditions was purchasable on commercial releases. …The diversity of singers, entertainers, jazz bands, preachers and other black artists represented on these records was remarkable.” Prior to the blues, reaching back to the nineteenth century there was a variety of black music before it got on record; there was ragtime, black vaudeville, minstrels, coon songs, work songs, dance tunes, medicine show entertainers, sheet music that found its way into black music and emphasis on banjo and fiddle music among other types. Songs were spread by traveling songsters, black road troupes, minstrel shows, tent shows and medicine shows. Although this music was not captured on record when it was in vogue many of these forms found their way onto records when blues was being recorded. Older musicians, born in the 1860's through the 1880's, learned early forms of black music that they brought to their records when they had the opportunity to record in the 20's and 30's. Some of it was shaped to fit the blues, the popular music of the day, while other songs remain more or less intact as performed by blacks decades prior. This was the  music of men like Henry Thomas, Jim Jackson, Frank Stokes, Daddy Stovepipe, Papa Charlie Jackson, the music of the jug and string bands and the music of the songsters and ballad singers. The records these men, and to a lesser extent women, recorded gives us a fascinating glimpse of the era before the rise of the blues. These older styles didn't disappear but remained parallel to the blues. An example of this is that as late as the mid-1910s the term "up-to-date coon shouter" was routinely applied to the likes of Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith; but around 1916 they were redefined as "blues singers." As Richard Nevins points out: "By the early 1920's back country black musicians who were songsters conversant with a wide spectrum of American genres began  recasting the modal song part of their repertoire into Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe: Greenville Strutblues. This transition required very little alteration and all at once they were blues musicians. Of course with the huge popularity of blues everywhere, they also commenced calling all the rest of their repertoire blues, even rags, breakdowns, and tin pan alley selections. The record companies were even worse, sticking the word blues at the end of almost all black secular music…" Below is some background on some today's artists and songs.

Henry Thomas, billed as "Ragtime Texas", was born in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874, and began his musical career as an itinerant songster, and recorded twenty-three songs from 1927 to 1929. He accompanied himself with the guitar and the quills, a folk instrument made from cane reeds. “Flailing his guitar”, Tony Russell writes, “in now forgotten country dance rhythms, whistling delicate melodies on his panpipes, gruffly chanting rag songs and blues, Thomas is a figure of almost legend.” The portrait Thomas presents on his twenty-three recordings cut for Vocalion between 1927 to 1929 provides, Russell notes, “a wholly absorbing picture of black-country music before it was submerged beneath the tidal wave of the blues.” Mack McCormick wrote one of the best pieces on Henry Thomas (Henry Thomas: Ragtime Texas – Complete Works 1927 to 1929, Herwin, 1975). Here's an excerpt: "He left behind a total of 23 issued selections which represent one of the richest contributions to our musical culture. It's goodtime music reaching out from another era: reels, anthems, stomps, gospel songs, dance calls, ballads, blues and fragments compressed in a blurring glimpse of black music as it existed in the last century. It's the songs that came out of the shifting days when freedmen and their children were remaking their lives in a hostile nation."

Born in the 1880’s, Jim Jackson was an experienced medicine show performer and occasional street singer. The Mississippi born Jackson had one of the biggest blues hits of the 20’s with his “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues.”  His recordings represent one of the richest veins of pre-blues music to be issued on record. Among these are songs like “I’m A  Bad Bad Man” which draws on a composition from 1894 and “I’m Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own” which dates to 1901. Barrelhouse pianist Speckled Red shared the stage with Jim Jackson in 1928 while touring through Mississippi and Alabama with the Red Rose Minstrels & Medicine Show. Red remembered Jackson as "a big fat feller, weighed about 235 pounds. Tall, stately feller too, and he danced, sang, played git-tar, cracked jokes." Jackson's long career with traveling shows began in 1905, and much of his repertoire was rooted in the 19th century. Among these are songs like “I’m A Bad Bad Man” which draws on a composition from 1894, “I’m Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own” which dates to 1901 and “Bye, Bye, Policeman”, played on the first show, which references a song from 1895.

Gus Cannon launched his medicine show career in 1914 when he joined Doc Stokey of Clarksdale, Mississippi. A tour with Doc Benson's show took Cannon to Chicago in 1927, Coley Jones: Travelling Manwhere he auditioned for Paramount Records and recorded a session with ace guitar picker Blind Blake. Cannon was in his mid-40's and his repertoire dates from the turn of the century on tunes like ”My Money Never Runs Out”, "Can You Blame The Colored Man" and one of the earliest blues, "Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home."

Chris Smith wrote: "[Joe] Evans & [Arthur] McClain are reported to have come from Fairmount, in eastern Tennessee, a region where blacks were outnumbered 12 to one by whites, and this goes some way to explaining the evident hillbilly influences on their music. Otherwise, all we know about 'The Two Poor Boys' is in the grooves oft heir 78s.” They cut 20 sides at sessions in 1927 and 1931.

Born circa 1880, Richard "Rabbit"  Brown spent much of his life in New Orleans where he was reported to have worked as a street singer and singing boatman on Lake Ponchartrain.  On March 11, 1927, Brown cut six sides for the recording pioneer Ralph Peer. Brown was a very much the songster and his recordings are an interesting mix of original blues, pop covers and "event" songs like his "Sinking Of The Titanic."

Born in Teoc, Mississippi in 1893, John Hurt moved to the town if Avalon at the age of two which remained his home for the rest of his life. Hurt cut two sessions in 1928 for the Okeh label and would not record again until 1963. Hurt’s repertoire includes blues from when he was growing up as well as ballads like “Stack O’ Lee” and  “Spike Driver Blues”, which references John Henry, and “Louis Collins” and “Frankie.”

Johnny Watson, alias Daddy Stovepipe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on April 12th 1867 and died in Chicago, November 1st 1963. A veteran of the turn of the century medicine shows, he was in his late fifties when he became one of the first blues harp players to appear on record in 1924. He later recorded with his wife, Mississippi Sarah, in the 1930s and spent his last years as a regular performer on Chicago's famous Maxwell Street, where he made his last recordings.

Crying Sam Collins was born in 1887, his stomping ground the Mississippi-Louisiana border region with a style similar to King Solomon Hill and Ramblin Thomas who were from the same region. Collins’ music draws from the era of minstrel and medicine show tradition reflected in songs like ‘Yellow Dog Blues”, “Salty Dog”, “Hesitation Blue’ and the first recorded version of “The Midnight Special.” His masterpieces, “Lonesome Road Blues” was a version of “In The Pines” which dates back to the 1870’s, and “My Road Is Rough And Rocky” which is a version of ”Long Gone.”

Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley: Papa's 'Bout To Get MadBorn in 1891, Charlie Patton was older than the other Delta musicians who recorded during the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, and he seems to have developed many of the themes that are now considered basic to the Delta blues repertoire. Remembered by history as a blues musician, Patton had grown up in the pre-blues era, and he played the full range of music required of a popular rural entertainer. Even though his recording career was sparked by the blues craze, only about half of his roughly fifty records can reasonably be considered part of that then-modern genre. The others are a mix of gospel and pre-blues music like “Runnin’ Wild Blues”, "Elder Greene", "Gonna Move To Alabama"  and “Prayer Of Death.”

Howard Armstrong was part of a whole generation of African-American string-band artists who played Americana in the 1920’s and 30’s for black and white audiences alike, everything from Tin Pan Alley tunes to gospel and blues. A field-recording team from Vocalion was in Knoxville twice between August 1929 and April 1930; setting up a temporary recording studio at radio station KNOX in downtown Knoxville’s St. James Hotel, where they recorded something approaching 100 tracks by several dozen musicians and musical groups from the region. It was during this session that a Vocalion record producer, looking for a memorable name that would spur sales, christened the Martin, Armstrong and Armstrong group, the “Tennessee Chocolate Drops.” They recorded one 78, “Knox County Stomp b/w Vine Street Drag.”

 

Share
ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
James 'Boodle It' WigginsEvil Woman BluesJuke Joint Saturday Night
James 'Boodle It' WigginsKeep A-Knockin' an You Can't Get In Piano Blues: The Essential
Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve ReedGang Of Brown Skin Women Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve ReedHey! Lawdy Mama – The France Blues Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve ReedTwo Little Tommies Blues Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Wesley WallaceFanny Lee Blues Down On The Levee: The Piano Blues of St. Louis
Wesley WallaceNo. 29 Down On The Levee: The Piano Blues of St. Louis
Willie HarrisWest Side BluesDown In Black Bottom
Willie HarrisWhat Makes A Tomcat Blue? Uptown Blues: A Decade Of Guitar -Piano Duets
Joe Dean Mexico Blues Down In Black Bottom
Joe Dean I'm So Glad I'm 21 Years Old Today Shake Your Wicked Knees
James 'Boodle It' Wiggins My Lovin' Blues Boogie Woogie & Barrelhouse Piano Vol. 2 1928-1930
James 'Boodle It' Wiggins Weary-Heart BluesBroke, Black And Blue
Charlie PickettCrazy 'bout My Black GalSon Bonds & Charlie Pickett 1934-1941
Charlie PickettTrembling Blues Son Bonds & Charlie Pickett 1934-1941
Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve ReedDon't You Leave Me Here Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve ReedMama You Don't Know How Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve ReedOriginal Stack O'Lee Blues Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Tom DicksonLabor Blues Blues Images Vol. 8
Tom DicksonDeath Bell BluesMemphis Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-34
Willie HarrisLonesome Midnight DreamA Richer Tradition
Willie HarrisNever Drive a Stranger from Your DoorA Richer Tradition
Margaret ThorntonTexas Bound BluesBarrelhouse Mamas
Margaret ThorntonJockey BluesBarrelhouse Mamas
James 'Boodle It' WigginsFrisco Bound Blues Boogie Woogie & Barrelhouse Piano Vol. 2 1928-1930
James 'Boodle It' WigginsForty-Four BluesBoogie Woogie & Barrelhouse Piano Vol. 2 1928-1930
Charlie Pickett Let Me Squeeze Your LemonSon Bonds & Charlie Pickett 1934-1941
Charlie Pickett Down The HighwaySon Bonds & Charlie Pickett 1934-1941
James 'Boodle It' WigginsCorinne, CorinnaBoogie Woogie & Barrelhouse Piano Vol. 2 1928-1930
James 'Boodle It' WigginsGotta Shave 'Em DryJuke Joint Saturday Night
Bob Call31 BluesDown In Black Bottom
Tom Dickson Happy Blues Country Blues: The Essential
Tom Dickson Worry Blues The Great Race Record Labels Vol. 3
Jim ThompkinsBedside BluesA Richer Tradition

Show Notes:

James "Boodle It" Wiggins: Keep A-Knockin' An You Can't Get In

Today's program spotlights several outstanding blues artists who recorded very little and who we know very little about. All the artists featured today recorded from one to eight titles and all left behind barley a trace of biographical information. We hear several fine pianists including Joe Dean, Wesley Wallace as well as Bob Call, Blind Leroy Garnett and Charlie Spand who back big voiced singer James Wiggins, In addition we spin the recorded output of guitarists Willie Harris, Charlie Pickett, Tom Dickson, Jim Thompkins plus  all the sides by The Down Home Boys (Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve Reed) and singer Margaret Thornton.

Virtually nothing is known about singer James 'Boodle It' Wiggins who cut eight sides at three sessions for the Paramount label between 1928 and 1929. Paramount placed two ads in the Chicago Defender on November 30, 1928 (Keep A-Knockin' An You Can't Get In b/w Evil Woman Blues) and January 25, 1930 ("Weary Heart Blues b/w My Lovin' Blues"). There were also two sessions on Nov. 13 and 14th 1928 that resulted in six unissued sides. Wiggins is believed to have been located in Dallas by Paramount scout R.L. Ashford who ran a music store and shoe shine parlor there. Big Bill Broonzy told Paul Oliver that Wiggins came from Louisiana. Broonzy related the following story to Oliver which appears in Screening The Blues: "Upon a return trip back home to Bogalusa in 1929, a white woman took offense when he failed to step aside for her on a public street. A local mob lynched him immediately and also shot him four times. Wiggins was a man of great strength and was actually still alive when his rope was cut down from the tree. While he survived the ordeal, he never sang about the incident."

At his first session Wiggins cut "Keep A-Knockin' An You Can't Get In" which gives our show it's title and has an interesting history. In his autobiography Born With The Blues Perry Bradford claims to be composer of the song but the first recorded version would seem to be that by Wiggins. In November 1928 Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band cut "You Can't Come In," which singer-pianist Bert Mays had cut for Vocalion a month earlier and which evolved into Little Richard's 1957's rock 'n' roll classic "Keep A Knockin." Singer and kazoo player James "Boodle It" Wiggins had recorded essentially the same song with pianist Bob Call for Paramount in February under the title "Keep A Knockin' An You Can't Get In" but with a somewhat different melody. Clarence Williams recorded a similar but slower song, "I'm Busy and You Can't Come In," twice in September 1928, first with Eva Taylor singing and then as an instrumental. Sylvester Weaver had recorded a solo guitar piece titled "I'm Busy And You Can't Come In" in 1924, but it bears little resemblance to the tune Williams played. Bert May's record seems to have been the first to marry the melody of "Bucket's Got A Hole In It" to the lyrics of "You Can't Come In" (the same melody is also used for "Midnight Special"). Accompanying himself on slide guitar, Kokomo Arnold recorded "Busy Bootin'" his adaptation of Wiggins's "Keep A Knockin' An You Can't Get In"in April 1935, with Black Bob Hudson on piano and Big Bill Broonzy on guitar. Hudson's introduction is based on the one Bob Call used with Wiggins, but on the second verse, Johnson sings "Kinda busy and you can't come in," indicating a familiarity with Eva Taylor’s song, which Alura Mack had covered in 1929.

Writer Mike Rowe wrote: "ln a pioneering article (read full article below) in Blues Unlimited magazine  (A Handful of Keys: Boodle It One Time?) Bob Hall and Richard Noblett analyzed Wiggins' recordings and cast doubts on the accepted identifications of the pianists. They accept Leroy Garnett's presence on 'My Lovin" and 'Weary Heart' but doubt he plays on 'Forty Four Blues.' Similarly they agree Bob Call as pianist on 'Evil Woman' but not necessarily 'Keep A-Knockin'.' For Wiggins's last coupling 'Corinne Corinna' and 'Gotta Shave 'Em Dry' Charlie Spand had been suggested but no firm conclusions were drawn. Bob Call, identified on two unissued Wiggins sessions, raises other questions; can the pianist of '31 Blues' be the same Bob Call after a gap of eighteen years crops up as a band pianist on records by Arbee Stidham, Big Bill, Jazz Gillum, Robert Nighthawk and who under his own name made a couple of jump blues? It would seem so. Call was known to have gone to school to learn to read music, presumably to expand his musical potential, and moreover the age seems right; his photograph from 1958 shows a man well into his fifties. Bob Call was shrewd enough to realize a change in style was necessary – those that wouldn't change retired or disappeared, and left as few traces as when they arrived."Willie Harris: West Side Blues 78

In March/April 1927, the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, made its first, of several, field trips to Chicago. The hundred-odd sides seem to have been made primarily for issue on J. Mayo Williams' short-lived Black Patti label. Many also appeared on Gennett and other labels, usually under pseudonyms. Among the sides recorded were some by Papa Harvey Hull and Long 'Cleve' Reed and the Down Home Boys also known as 'Sunny Boy And His Pals, a Gennet pseudonym. It's unclear where the group was from. It's been suggested that they were natives of northern Mississippi, a region that is as musically different from the Delta as it is geographically.Writer Chris Smith surmised the group might be from South Memphis around Tate and Panola counties where Garfield Akers, Joe Callicott and Frank Stokes developed their two-guitar sound. Their recorded legacy is the epitome of the songster sound, featuring a coon song ("Gang of Brown Skin Women," a retitled version of "I've Got a Gal for Ev'ry Day in the Week"), a bad man ballad ("Original Stack O'Lee Blues") and material that probably dates from circa 1900, including "Don't You Leave Me Here" (an "Alabama Bound" variant), "Mama You Don't Know How," "Hey! Lawdy Mama – The France Blues" and "Two Little Tommies Blues." The last two numbers are noteworthy for the artists' fantastic harmony singing, a characteristic much more prevalent in proto-blues material than in blues. All six of these sides are magnificent, and it's a shame that the Down Home Boys never recorded again after 1927. It's been suggested that Big Boy Cleveland, who recorded for Gennett shortly after Hull and Reed, was actually Long Cleve(land) Reed. A drawing of Papa Harvey Hull and Long 'Cleve' Reed appeared in a Black Patti advertisement published May 21, 1927.

Willie Harris cut five sides at three sessions in 1929 and 1930 for Brunswick. One of those sides was unissued. At his May 28th 1929 session he also backed singer Coletha Simpson on “ Lonesome Lonesome Blues.” Harris may also have backed Sonny Boy Nelson, Mississippi Matilda and Robert Hill at a 1936 session for Bluebird. Harris is not the same artist as William Harris who cut fourteen issued sides at four sessions for Gannet in 1927 and 1928 or Blind Willie Harris who cut one 78 in 1928.

Little is known about Charlie Pickett, who was from Brownsville, TN. Sheldon Harris reported that he was Estes cousin. Hammie Nixon had him performing in a group with Estes, Nixon, and others on the streets of Chicago in the 1930's and 1940's. Nixon told Kip Lornell in 1975, "He started preaching in St. Louis, been living in St. Louis for a couple of years. I think he's preaching in Los Angeles now." Of the song "Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon",Nixon said, "I will never forget the first time he started playing that song, how he sung a something like, 'When I got home, another nigger kicking in my stall.' The bossman told him 'don't say that no more!'" He cut four sides for Decca in 1937 backed by Hammie Nixon and Lee Brown. Pickett also played guitar behind Estes on 19 numbers at sessions in 1937 and 1938. He or Estes may have played guitar behind pianist Lee Green at a 1937 session.

Black Patti Ad

Blues pianist Wesley Wallace left behind only one 78, "Fanny Lee Blues" b/w "No. 29," recorded for Paramount in Grafton, WI, in February of 1930. Not much is known about his life, other than the fact that he probably lived just outside of St. Louis, in Alton, MO, and that he may originally have come from Arkansas. Wallace also backed Robert Peeples,  Bessie Mae Smith on record and has been suggested as the pianist behind  Sylvester Palmer although this has been disputed by Henry Townsend who knew him well. Palmer cut a lone four-song session on November 15, 1929 in Chicago for Columbia. He traveled to the Windy City with Henry Townsend: "Sylvester and I went to Chicago to record for Columbia. Sylvester Palmer had his own particular style on piano, and it was a very strange style. The one number that I think sold better was 'Do It Sloppy' I haven't heard anyone come close to playing that particular style; it has a ring more towards Cow Cow Davenport than anyone I know."  …I've heard it said that the piano player Wesley Wallace and Sylvester Palmer were one and the same person. Forget it – it's not true. At Sylvester's session I was sitting I was sitting right in the studio with him, and at my session he was right in the studio with me, and there was no other person involved." As for Wallace, Townsend had the following to say: "Wesley Wallace had beautiful coordination with what he was doing, very timely. The introduction he plays to "Fanny Lee Blues" was a typical sound of this city, that beat. "

Joe Dean recorded one great 78 in 1930: “I'm So Glad I'm Twenty-One Years Old Today b/w Mexico Bound Blues" for Paramount, who dubbed him ‘‘Joe Dean from Bowling Green.’’ Dean was born in St. Louis on April 25, 1908. Raised by his widowed mother, Dean began by playing house parties and small clubs. Dean worked in a steel mill, playing intermittently, until the 1950's. He remained musically active on a part-time basis into the 1960's. He eventually became the Rev. Joe Dean and died on June 24 1981. He was interviewed by Mike Rowe for Blues Unlimited magazine in 1977 (Blues Unlimited no. 127 Nov/Dec 1977, p. 4-9.).

Tom Dickson cut six sides in Memphis in 1928 for the Okeh label. Nothing is known of him except that Joe Callicott said that he played in the Memphis area.

Margaret Thornton cut one lone record for the short-lived Black Patti label in 1927, "Texas Bound Blues b/w Jockey Blues." Thornton was a wonderful singer backed by the fine barrelhouse playing of the equally obscure Blind James Beck.

Jim Thompkins (credited in the Brunswick ledger as Peg Leg Jim Thompkins) cut two songs, “Bedside Blues” and “Down Fall Blues”, the latter never issued. When issued on 78 the flipside of “Bedside Blues” was "We Got To Get That Thing Fixed" by Speckled Red.

-A Handful of Keys: Boodle It One Time? (Blues Unlimited no. 114, Jul/Aug 1975, p. 14–15) [PDF]

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Mary Johnson w/ Tampa RedDeath Cell Blues Twenty First. St. Stomp: The Piano Blues Of St. Louis
James Stump Johnson w/ Tampa RedJones Law BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 2 - Brunswick 1928-30
Texas Alexander w/ Lonnie JohnsonLong Lonesome DayTexas Alexander Vol. 1
Mooch Richardson w/ Lonnie JohnsonHelena BluesA Richer Tradition: Country Blues and String Band Music 1923-1942
Peetie Wheatstraw w/ Lonnie JohnsonTruckin' Thru TrafficPeetie Wheatstraw Vol. 5
Lil Green w/ Big Bill BroonzyJust Rockin'Lil Green -1940-1941
Charlie Spand w/ Big Bill Broonzy Rock And RyeRoots N' Blues: Booze & The Blues
Cripple Clarence Lofton w/ Big Bill BroonzyBrownskin GirlsThe Piano Blues Vol. 9: Lofton/Noble 1935-1936
Bumble Bee Slim w/ Casey Bill WeldonThis Old Life I'm Living Bumble Bee Slim Vol. 5 1935-1936
Memphis Minnie w/ Casey Bill WeldonWhen The Sun Goes DownFour Woman Blues
Leroy Henderson w/ Casey Bill WeldonGood Scuffler BluesCharley Jordan Vol.3 1935-1937
Dorothy Baker w/ Roosevelt SykesSteady Grinding BluesBarrelhouse Mamas
Teddy Darby w/ Roosevelt Sykes The Girl I Left BehindBlind Teddy Darby 1929-1937
Napoleon Fletcher w/ Roosevelt Sykes – She Showed It AllGrass Cutter BluesShe Showed It AllRoosevelt Sykes: The Essential
Alice Moore w/ Kokomo ArnoldGrass Cutter BluesKokomo Arnold Vol. 3 1936-1937
Roosevelt Sykes w/ Kokomo ArnoldThe Honey DripperRoosevelt Sykes Vol. 4 1934-1936
Peetie Wheatstraw w/ Kokomo ArnoldWorking On The Project Broadcasting the Blues
Robert Lee McCoy w/ Sonny Boy Williamson ITough LuckProwling With The Nighthawk
Yank Rachel w/ Sonny Boy Williamson II'm Wild And Crazy As Can Be Yank Rachell Vol. 1 1934-1941
Ma Rainey w/ Tampa RedBlack Eye BluesMother of the Blues
Victoria Spivey w/ Tampa RedDon't Trust Nobody Blues Victoria Spivey Vol. 3 1929-1936
Bessie Mae Smith w/ Lonnie JohnsonMy Daddy's Coffin Blues St. Louis Bessie & Alice Moore Vol. 1 1927-1929
Victoria Spivey w/ Lonnie JohnsonDope Head BluesBlues Images Vol. 4
Georgia White w/ Lonnie Johnson Alley BoogieGeorgia White Vol. 3 1937-1939
Mary Johnson w/ Roosevelt SykesRattlesnake BluesMary Johnson 1929-1936
Charlie McFadden w/ Roosevelt SykesGambler's BluesCharlie ''Specks'' McFadden 1929-1937
Washboard Sam w/ Big Bill BroonzyLife Is Just A BookWashboard Sam Vol. 6 1941-1942
Washboard Sam w/ Big Bill BroonzyMy Feet Jumped SaltyRockin' My Blues Away
Big Joe Williams w/ Sonny Boy Williamson IPlease Don't Go Big Joe Williams Vol. 1 1935-1941
Speckled Red w/ Sonny Boy Williamson IYou Got To Fix ItSpeckled Red 1929-1938
Big Bill Broonzy w/ Papa Charlie JacksonAt The Break of DayAll The Classic Sides 1928-1937
Lucille Bogan w/ Papa Charlie JacksonJim Tampa BluesLucille Bogan Vol. 1 1923-1929
Big Boy Teddy Edwards w/ Papa Charlie Jackson & Big Bill BroonzyLouise Big Boy Teddy Edwards 1930-1936
Washboard Sam w/ Big Bill Broonzy & Roosevelt SykesRiver Hip MamaRockin' My Blues Away

Show Notes:

Tampa Red
Tampa Red

A few months back I did a show called “Sideman Blues” where we shined the light on some superb session musicians who backed blues artists in the pre-war era. On today's sequel to that show we focus on some of the stars of the pre-war blues era who were also active session artists. Artists featured today include some of the era's big names such as Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Roosevelt Sykes, Kokomo Arnold, Sonny Boy Williamson I and others who were also very active backing others on record. Bluesmen such as Big Bill, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson and Roosevelt Sykes in particular, backed dozens of artists, both well known and obscure on record. Many of these artists also acted in the role as talent scouts for the labels.

During his heyday in the 1920's and 30's, Tampa Red was billed as "The Guitar Wizard," and his stunning slide work on steel National or electric guitar shows why he earned the title. His 25 year recording career produced hundreds of sides: hokum, pop, and jive, but mostly blues (including classic compositions "Anna Lou Blues," "Black Angel Blues," "Crying Won't Help You," "It Hurts Me Too," and "Love Her with a Feeling"). Jim O'Neal neatly summed up Tampa's place in blues history when he wrote the following in 1975: "Few figures have been as important in blues history as Tampa Red; yet no bluesman of such stature has been so ignored by today's blues audience. As a composer, recording artist, musical trendsetter and one of the premier urban blues guitarists of his day, Tampa Red remained popular with black record buyers for more than 20 years and exerted considerable influence on many post-World War II blues stars who earned greater acclaim for playing Tampa's songs than Tampa himself often did."

Tampa was a very busy session guitarist mainly in the early years of his career, circa 1928-1929. Among those he backed include Big Maceo, Lucille Bogan, Bertha "Chippie" Hill, Lil Johnson, Frankie Jaxon, Victoria Spivey, Romeo Nelson, Ma Rainey, Mary Johnson and many others. Tampa's work behind underrated singer Mary Johnson has always been among my favorites. Johnson cut six sides at two sessions in 1930. The April 8, 1930 was outstanding do in large part to the shimmering slide guitar of Tampa and the excellent piano of the under recorded Judson Brown. The two work beautifully behind Johnson on the mournful "Three Months Ago Blues" with Tampa shinning on "Dawn Of Day Blues" and the magnificent "Death Cell Blues."

Lonnie Johnson was a true musical innovator who's remarkable recording career spanned from the 1920's through the 1960's. During that time his musical diversity was amazing: he played piano, guitar, violin, he recorded solo, he accompanied down home country blues singers like Texas Alexander, he played with Louis Armtrong's Hot Fives, recorded with Duke Ellington, duetted with Victoria Spivey and cut a series of instrumental duets with the white jazzman Eddie Lang that set a standard of musicianship that remains unsurpassed by blues guitarists. In Johnson's single-string style lie the basic precedents of such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, while being a prime influence on bluesman as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tampa Red and B.B. King. Thus Johnson enjoys the rare distinction of having influenced musicians in both the jazz and blues fields. Like Tampa, Johnson backed dozens of artists on record including Texas Alexander, Jimmie Gordon, Merline Johnson, Alice Moore, Victoria Spivey, Peetie Wheatstraw, Johnnie Temple and a host of others.

Big Bill Broonzy
Big Bill Broonzy

As Bob Riesman wrote in his biography of Big Bill Broonzy: "…Bill's recording career took off in this era, and his prodigious output was nearly unmatched among blues musicians. From 1934 until 1942, when the combination of a musicians’ union ban and the diversion of shellac to the war effort halted virtually all recording for two years, Bill averaged better than thirteen double-sided 78 rpm records each year as a featured artist. In addition, he played on an average of forty-eight sides each year as a sideman. In other words, for nearly a decade, he averaged one new Big Bill record a month, and he appeared on two more as a studio guitarist. …As 'Big Bill,' he was one of the most productive and popular artists in the business, with a name that was familiar to his audiences and reinforced by his easily recognized singing style. At the same time, he became the first-call studio guitarist for dozens of recording sessions that Lester Melrose organized for several record companies, particularly Bluebird. In that capacity, he was an integral part of the distinctive sound of numerous musicians, including some of the most popular artists of the era. Two artists whose careers were interwoven with Bill’s were Washboard Sam and Jazz Gillum. Bill played guitar on a most every one of the more than 150 recordings that Sam made over a period of twenty years, as well as on many of the sides that Gillum recorded."

Broonzy's 40's work with Washboard Sam really hit a high point with Big Bill laying down some lengthy, swinging amplified guitar on featured tracks like "Life Is Just A Book", "My Feet Jumped Salty" and "River Hip Mama." Washboard Sam recorded hundreds of records between 1935 and 1949 for the bluebird label, usually with backing by guitarist Big Bill. In 1932, Sam moved to Chicago, initially he played for tips, but soon he began performing regularly with Broonzy. Within a few years, Sam was supporting Broonzy on the guitarist's Bluebird recordings. Soon, he was supporting a number of different musicians on their recording sessions, including pianist Memphis Slim, bassist Ransom Knowling, and a handful of saxophone players, who all recorded for Bluebird. In 1935, Sam began recording for both Bluebird and Vocalion Records. Throughout the rest of the '30s and the '40s, Sam was one of the most popular Chicago bluesmen, selling plenty of records and playing to packed audiences in the Chicago clubs.

Broonzy was also prominent on the recordings of Lil Green who's "Just Rockin'" we feature today. Her professional career was launched around 1940, when the manager of a Chicago club hired her on the spot after a group of her friends had arranged for a bandleader to call her up from the audience to sing.By May 1940 Green had come to the attention of Lester Melrose, who brought her into the studio to record on the Bluebird label. He assigned a trio of musicians to back her, including Big Bill, Simeon Henry on piano, and New Orleans veteran Ransom Knowling on bass. That session produced her first hit, "Romance in the Dark." As Broonzy noted in his autobiography: "I played for Lil Green for two years as her guitar player. I wrote some songs for her, like "My Mellow Man" and "Country Boy," "Give Your Mama One More Smile" and some more that I fixed up for her.

Roosevelt Sykes
Roosevelt Sykes

In 1929 Roosevelt Sykes met Jesse Johnson, the owner of the Deluxe Record Shop in St. Louis. Sykes, who at the time performed at an East St. Louis club for one dollar a night, quickly accepted Johnson's invitation to a recording session in New York. In the early 1930s, Sykes moved to Chicago. During the Depression years, he recorded for several labels under various pseudonyms. For the Victor label, he recorded as Willie Kelly on the classic 1930 side "32-20 Blues." Two years later, he cut his popular number "Highway 61 Blues" for Champion, the subsidiary label of Gennett Records. During the 1930's, Sykes served as a back-up pianist for more than thirty singers including Mary Johnson and James "St. Louis Jimmy" Oden. Through the recruiting efforts of Mayo "Ink" Williams, Sykes signed with Decca Records in 1934. His 1936 Decca side "Driving Wheel Blues" emerged as a blues classic. Sykes settled in Chicago in 1941 and, within a short time, became a house musician for the Victor/Bluebird label. Although the label marketed him as the successor to Fats Waller, who recorded on the same label and died in 1943, Sykes found success as the creator of his own style and remained active as a session man.

Sonny Boy Williamson was already a harp virtuoso in his teens. He learned from Hammie Nixon and Noah Lewis and ran with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell before settling in Chicago in 1934. Sonny Boy signed to Bluebird in 1937. Henry Townsend recalled driving Sonny Boy, Robert Nighthawk, Walter Davis and Big Joe Williams to Aurora, Illinois, in his 1930 A Model Ford for their 1937 sessions: "I transferred them to Aurora, Illinois. There was about eight or nine of us …we stacked them in the car like sardines." This led to a marathon recording session resulting in six songs by Nighthawk (as Robert Lee McCoy), six by Sonny Boy Williamson I, four by Big Joe Williams and eight sides by Walter Davis. It was Sonny Boy's songs, especially, "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Bluebird Blues" and "Sugar Mama Blues" which were the biggest hits. Sonny Boy recorded prolifically for Victor both as a leader and behind others in the vast Melrose stable (including Robert Lee McCoy and Big Joe Williams, who in turn played on some of Williamson's sides). Sonny Boy cut more than 120 sides in all for RCA from 1937 to 1947

Kokomo Arnold was born in Georgia, and began his musical career in Buffalo, New York in the early 1920's. During prohibition, Kokomo Arnold worked primarily as a bootlegger, and performing music was a only sideline to him. Nonetheless he worked out a distinctive style of bottleneck slide guitar and blues singing that set him apart from his contemporaries. In the late 1920's, Arnold settled for a short time in Mississippi, making his first recordings in May 1930 for Victor in Memphis under the name of "Gitfiddle Jim." Arnold moved to Chicago in order to be near to where the action was as a bootlegger, but the repeal of the Volstead Act put him out of business, so he turned instead to music as a full-time vocation. From his first Decca session of September 10, 1934 until he finally called it quits after his session of May 12, 1938, Kokomo Arnold made 88 sides.Arnold also did session work backing Peetie Wheatstraw, Roosvelt Sykes, Alice Moore, Mary Johnson and others.

Papa Charlie Jackson
Papa Charlie Jackson

"Papa" Charlie Jackson was a six-string banjo player who was one of the earliest and most successful of the solo blues singer/instrumentalists. Jackson settled in Chicago on the famed Maxwell Street around 1920 where he began earning a living by playing on street corners and at house parties. In 1924 he cut his first solo sides "Papa's Lawdy Blues" and "Airy Man Blues" for the Paramount label. During this period Jackson also became a sideman with many of the hot groups in and around Chicago. He also recorded with Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bumble Bee Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and others before his subsequent death around 1938.

Despite several busy years in the recording studio and a couple of medium-sized hits ("Somebody Changed The Lock On My Door" and "We Gonna Move (To The Outskirts of Town)"), very little is known about Casey Bill Weldon. It was assumed he was the Will Weldon who played with the Memphis Jug Band but that remains in dispute. Between 1927 and 1935 he cut just over 60 sides for Victor, Bluebird and Vocalion. He was also an active session guitarist, appearing on records by Teddy Darby, Bumble Bee Slim, Memphis Minnie, Peetie Wheatsraw and others.

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