1940′s Blues


ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Jazz GillumRoll Dem Bones Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumThe Blues What Am Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Tampa RedPlease Mr. DoctorTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa RedShe's DynamiteTampa Red Vol. 14 1949-1951
Big Bill BroonzyLeavin' DayRockin' In Chicago 1949-53
Big Bill BroonzyRambling BillThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Washboard SamYou Can't Make The GradeRockin' My Blues Away
Washboard SamRamblin' With That WomanWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-1949
Washboard SamShe's Just My SizeWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-1949
Sonny Boy WilliamsonWonderful TimeThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Sonny Boy WilliamsonPolly Put Your Kettle OnThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Sonny Boy WilliamsonApple Tree SwingThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Lonnie JohnsonMe And My Crazy SelfThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonNothin' Clicken' ChickenLonnie Johnson 1949
Lonnie JohnsonCan't Sleep AnymoreLonnie Johnson 1949-1952
Jazz GillumGonna Take My Rap Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumLook What You Are Today Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Big Bill BroonzyOld Man BluesThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Big Bill Broonzy I Can't WriteThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Tampa RedGot A Mind To Leave This TownTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa RedBig Stars Falling BluesTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Jazz GillumTake One More Chance with Me Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumHand Reader Blues Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumYou Got to Run Me Down Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Lonnie Johnson It Was All In VainThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie Johnson I Know It's LoveLonnie Johnson 1949-1952
Sonny Boy WilliamsonBetter Cut That OutThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Sonny Boy WilliamsonMellow Chick SwingThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Tampa Red EvalenaTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa Red Rambler's BluesTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Big Bill BroonzyBig Bill's BoogieThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Big Bill BroonzyStop Lying WomanThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Washboard SamSoap And Water BluesRockin' My Blues Away
Washboard SamI Just Couldn't Help ItWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-1949

Show Notes:

Jazz GillumAs blues historian Paul Oliver noted, artists like Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Washboard Sam and Sonny Boy Williamson, were "playing in the brash, confident manner of Chicago which had been developing through the 'thirties." Sam Charters characterized the sound as the "Bluebird Beat" or more unkindly as the "Melrose Mess" by Mike Rowe in his pioneering book Chicago Blues. As Rowe notes "it was a white businessman, Lester Melrose, who was really responsible for shaping the Chicago sound of the late 30's and 40's." Melrose had said "From March 1934 to February 1951 I recorded at least 90 percent of all rhythm-and-blues talent for RCA Victor and Columbia Records…" As Rowe further explains: "But Melrose had more than a large stable of blues artists under his control. Since only a few of them had regular accompanists most of them would play on each others records and thus Melrose has a completely self-contained unit… …The final stage of this musical incest was completed when they started recording each others songs." The result was a consistent, sometime cookie cutter sound, although the best artists would consistently transcend these limitations. The "Bluebird Sound" anticipated the Chicago blues of the post-war era featuring tight, smooth small band arrangements that were filled out with piano, bass drums and often clarinet or saxophone. I've always been a fan of the late period recordings by today's featured artists, in some cases a neglected or overlooked period, and today we spotlight recordings made between 1946 and 1953 which shows how their music evolved and how their sound led  to the rise of the electric Chicago blues sound of the 50's and the emergence of R&B..

Jazz Gillum is usually treated with indifference among blues critics, looked upon as a rather generic performer who typified the mainstream Chicago blues style of the 1930's and 40's. While there's some truth to this, Gillum's recordings were consistently entertaining throughout his sixteen-year recording career punctuated with a fair number of exceptional sides. Gillum was by no means a harmonica virtuoso but he was a very expressive, easygoing singer who penned a number of evocative songs backed by some of the era's best blues musicians. Gillum recorded 100 sides between 1934-49 as a leader in addition to session work with Big Bill Broonzy, Curtis Jones and the State Street Boys. Many of his records were characterized by strongly rhythmic support, credit for which must go largely to Big Bill Broonzy and later guitarist Willie Lacey.Washboard Sam

William McKinley Gillum was born in Indianola, Mississippi (B.B. King's birthplace as well) on September 11, 1904. He soon learned to play the harmonica. By 1918 he had a job in a drugstore in Greenwood, Mississippi and could often been seen on the streets playing music for tips. Five years later he migrated to Chicago. There he met guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and the two started working club dates around the city as a duo and would soon form an enduring recording partnership. Gillum made his recording debut for the Bluebird label in 1934 with "Early In The Morning" b/w "Harmonica Stomp." The records evidently didn't sell and Gillum didn't record again for two years. Gillum's recordings were very much in the Bluebird mold yet he often rose above the production line sound to record a fair number of high quality blues. Between 1934-1942 Gillum recorded 70 sides, every session featuring the fret work of Big Bill Broonzy. Gillum's most celebrated song during this period was "Key To The Highway" which he cut on May 9, 1940. Both Broonzy and Gillum claimed authorship of the song which was an enduring source of bitterness for Gillum. During World War II, there was a shortage of shellac and J.C. Patrillo, President of the American Federation of Musicians ordered a ban on all recordings. Gillum joined the Army in 1942 and served until 1945.

Gillum resumed recording in 1945 and in 1946 cut "Look On Yonder Wall" one of his most famous recordings. Starting in 1946 the brilliant William Lacey took over the guitar chores and his terrific electric work really adds a spark to Gillum's later recordings. Gillum made his last issued recordings as leader on January 25, 1949. Gillum would record once more on a 1961 date with Memphis Slim and Arbee Stidham. On March 29, 1966, during an argument, Gillum was shot in the head and was pronounced dead on arrival at Garfield Park Hospital in Chicago.

Washboard Sam recorded hundreds of records between 1935 and 1949 for the bluebird label, usually with backing by guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. Out of all the washboard players of the era, Sam was the most popular, which was due not only to his washboard talent, but also his skills as a highly imaginative songwriter and powerful, expressive vocalist. As an accompanist, Washboard Sam not only played with Broonzy, but also backed bluesmen like Bukka White, Memphis Slim, and Jazz Gillum. Sam added a phonograph turntable and a couple of cowbells to his washboard for added tone and his washboard playing is consistently driving and swinging.

Washboard Sam (born Robert Brown) was the illegitimate son of Frank Broonzy, who also fathered Big Bill Broonzy. Sam was raised in Arkansas, working on a farm. He moved to Memphis in the early '20s to play the blues. While in Memphis, he met Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon and the trio played street corners, collecting tips from passerby's. In 1932, Sam moved to Chicago. Initially he played for tips, but soon he began performing regularly with Big Bill 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. In 1953, Washboard Sam recorded a session for Chess Records and then retired. In the early '60s, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim tried to persuade Sam to return to the stage to capitalize on the blues revival. Initially, he refused, but in 1963 began performing concerts in clubs and coffeehouses in Chicago; he even played a handful of dates in Europe in early 1964. He cut his last sides in 1964 before passing in 1966.

Sonny Boy Williamson I
Sonny Boy Williamson I

Easily the most important harmonica player of the pre-war era, John Lee Williamson almost single-handedly made the harmonica a major instrument, leading the way for the amazing innovations of Little Walter and others who followed. 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. He 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. John Lee was popular enough that by the 1940s, another blues harp player, Aleck/Alex "Rice" Miller, who was based in Helena, Arkansas, began also using the name Sonny Boy Williamson.

His first recording session was supported by the great Big Joe Williams, at the beginning of his distinguished career playing delta blues guitar. After this session Sonny Boy alternated between guitar and piano backups, occasionally using both at the same session. His most frequent accompanists were Big Bill Broonzy and the record company's "house" piano player Blind John Davis. Other famous accompanists over the years were Eddie Boyd, Yank Rachel, Big Maceo and Willie Dixon. But some say the best accompanist was Joshua Altheimer, a piano player who played on the seven numbers of a 1940 session and then died the next year. Writer Pete Welding noted that the only significant difference between Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy and those of say Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf is the matter of electric amplification. Othewise all the ingredients are the same: guitar, harp, bass and drums. He continues, "Big Joe and John Lee stand as vital, connecting links between the older Mississippi style and those of the postwar years." Sonny Boy Williamson wouldn't live to reap any appreciable rewards from his inventions. He died at the age of 34, while at the zenith of his popularity (his romping "Shake That Boogie" was a national R&B hit in 1947 on Victor), from a violent bludgeoning about the head that occurred during an apparent mugging on the South side. "Better Cut That Out," another storming rocker later appropriated by Junior Wells, became a posthumous hit for Williamson in late 1948. Williamson's style had a profound influence on those who followed including Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor among many others.

Lonnie Johnson's place in blues history would have been immortalized if even if he had never recorded past the 1930's. It certainly would have made blues critics life easier who generally tend to dismiss Johnson's later recordings. Unfortunately, for them, Johnson persisted hooking up with the King label in the late 1940's, enjoying the biggest commercial success of his career and after a fallow period in the 1950's made a full fledged comeback in the 1960's before passing in 1970.

In latter years Lonnie Johnson couldn't win with blues or jazz fans. In the 1960's the blues and folk audience looked away in embarrassment when he sang "How Deep Is the Ocean," "My Mother's Eyes," or "Red Sails in the Sunset." The jazz crowd dismissed him as a relic. Supposedly Duke Ellington, with whom Johnson recorded with in 1928, declined to appear with this "old blues guy" when he guest-starred with Ellington's band at Town Hall in 1961. The New York Daily News caught the flavor of the moment with the headline "The Janitor Meets the Duke." As singer Barbara Dane noted: "…He was a very sophisticated player in a moment when the world was looking for the rough and earthy Delta players."

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson

Today we spotlight sides waxed during Johnson's stint with King records which ran from 1947 through 1952 and resulted in close to seventy issued sides. When Johnson signed with King in 1947 his music and music in general was changing. By 1947 he had switched to electric guitar, was incorporating more ballads into his repertoire while the music was in transition from blues to R&B. It is true that Johnson reworked several of his earlier songs and perhaps over relied on a few signature guitar phrases during this period. Still, while many were unprepared for the changing musical times, Johnson seamlessly sailed into the new era not only achieving commercial success but also cutting music of a consistently high artistic caliber.

We featured some 1951 recordings which are complimented by tenor saxophonists Ray Felder and Wilbur "Red" Prysock: "It Was All in Vain" and "Me and My Crazy Self" are sublime blues ballads featuring some of Johnson's best vocal performances plus some nice guitar and tenor echoing off each other beautifully. Johnson concluded his King stint with a four song session in June 1952. Here Johnson is backed by trumpet, three tough saxes, and a kicking rhythm section headed by pianist Todd Rhodes. Backed by a wailing, full bodied band Johnson croons mightily on "I'm Guilty", "You Can't Buy Love" and the soaring "Can't Sleep Any More" the only number on which he solos for any length.

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Little Son Willis Nothing But The Blues Down Home Blues Classics: California & The West Coast 1948-1954
Alex Moore Neglected Woman Whistling Alex Moore 1929-51
Dr. Hepcat Hattie Green Houston Might Be Heaven: Rockin' R&B In Texas 1947-1951
Wright Holmes Good Road BluesDown Behind The Rise 1947-1953
Jesse ThomasDouble Due Love You Down Behind The Rise 1947-1953
Junior BrooksLone Town Blues Modern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol. 1
Jimmy DeBery Before LongDeep South Blues Piano 1935-1937
Manny NicholsNo One To Love MeDown Home Blues Classics: Texas 1946-1954
Blind Willie McTellEast St. Louis Blind Willie McTell & Curley Weaver: The Post War Years
Johnny Beck You Gotta Lay Down Mama Down Home Blues Classics: Texas 1946-1954
Dennis McMillon Paper Wooden Daddy New York City Blues 1940-1950
Schoolboy Cleve She's GoneDown Home Blues Classics Vol.5: Memphis & The South 1949-1954
Pee Wee Hughes Country Boy Jook Joint Blues
Papa Lightfoot Wine, Whiskey & Women Blues Harmonica Wizards
Goldrush All My Money GoneRural Blues Vol. 1 1934- 1956
Leroy Ervin Blue, Black and Evil Texas Blues ( Bill Quinn's Gold Star Recordings)
Big Charlie Bradix Numbered Days The Travelling Record Man
Pete Franklin Down Behind the Rise Down Behind The Rise 1947-1953
Walter Bradford Reward For My Baby Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Charley BookerWalked All NightSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Frank Edwards Gotta Get Together Jook Joint Blues
Henry Hill & Doctor Ross That Ain't Right Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Joe Hill LouisWe All Gotta Go SometimeSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
John Lee Down At The Depot Rural Blues Vol. 1 1934- 1956
Dan Pickett 99 1/2 Won't Do Shake That Thing!: East Coast Blues 1935-1953
Pinetop Slim Applejack Boogie Modern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol. 4
Big Boy SpiresAbout To Lose My Mind Chicago Slickers 1948-1953
Otis HintonWalking Downhill Black Cat Trail
Frankie Lee SimsWalking With Frankie 4th & Beale And Further South
Luther HuffBulldog Blues Down Home Blues Classics Vol.5: Memphis & The South 1949-1954
Lane HardinKeep 'em Down The Modern Down Home Blues Sessions Vol. 4
Boyd Gilmore Ramblin' On My Mind The Modern Downhown Blues Sessions Vol. 1
Baby Face Turner Blue Serenade The Modern Downhown Blues Sessions Vol. 2
Willie NixLonesome BedroomThe Traveling Record Man

Show Notes:

Down Behind The Rise
Read Liner Notes

In the immediate post-war era the music was rapidly changing, R&B was on the rise and and older blues styles were falling out of fashion. Yet for awhile at least, there was still a market for rural down home blues as evidenced by the popularity of artists like Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Smokey Hogg. Between 1944 and 1964, more than 600 record companies tried their hands at recording blues. Many failed or had limited success while others grew and became major players. Paul Vernon wrote that this was “the last grand hurrah of local blues recorded for, and often by, local entrepreneurs, neither folkloric nor college oriented, but music for the culture from which it grew." Today we spotlight some of my down home blues favorites spanning the years 1947 through 1957.

A good number of today's tracks come from two album series that made a big impression on me; one was on the Nighthawk label which issued a series of great anthologies in the late 70's. I discovered these a bit later at my college radio station which had the entire series. I was particularly drawn to Down Behind The Rise 1947-1953 which introduced me to Jesse Thomas, Wright Holmes and Johnny Beck, all of whom are featured today. All of these sides have since been reissued on many different collections. The other series was Kent's Anthology of Blues, a twelve volume set of albums, some spotlighting single artists, others anthologies of great down home blues. I discovered numerous great artists from that series including Willie Nix, Pinetop Slim, Charlie Bradix, Baby Face Turner, Junior Brooks, Boyd Gilmore and Charley Booker, all artists featured today. The series was resurrected in grand fashion by Ace Records over the course of six CD's with terrific notes by Jim O'Neal and loads of additional tracks.

I should also mention the Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1956, a nine LP box set that I picked up back in High School at Bleeker Bob's in Greenwich Village. I have played this set endlessly over the years and today spin several tracks from that box including Walter Bradford, Charley Booker, Henry Hill & Doctor Ross and Joe Hill Louis. Below is is some information on a few of today's featured performers.

Wright Holmes: Good Road BluesWright Holmes was born in Hightower, TX. on July 4, 1905. In 1930 he moved to Houston where he started playing in clubs on Dowling Street and also broadcasted on KTRH. In 1947 he made two recordings for Bill Quinn's Gold Star label but Quinn didn't issue the recordings because he thought that Holmes sounded too much like Lightnin' Hopkins who was his top selling blues artist. Later that year, another man named Abe Conley recorded four songs by him at his studio. Conley sold the masters to Miltone. Two of the songs were issued on Miltone. Miltone was later bought out by Gotham who reissued the two songs and issued one other with another song never issued.

Jesse Thomas recorded sporadically from the late 1920's through the early 1990's and despite his longevity didn't achieve much in the way of success or recognition. In 1929, at 18, Thomas cut four excellent sides for Victor.By the post-war era Thomas had developed a brilliant, highly individual style unlike anyone else. Between 1948-1958 Thomas cut sides for nine different West Coast labels. Thomas' "Double Due Love You" was a song made a big impression when I first heard it on Down Behind The Rise.

Modern Records' partner Joe Bihari had made his first field trip to the South around September 1951 following the breakdown in relations with Sam Phillips. This was after Rocket "88" by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner ended up on Chess instead of Modern, and became a #1 R&B smash hit. Until then Phillips had been recording Modern's Memphis-area artists including B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis and Rosco Gordon. Following the split with Phillips, Bihari hit paydirt with B.B. King's "3 O'Clock Blues," thus encouraging Bihari to authorize further trips in the South. The Biharis launched a new label for these field recordings, Blues & Rhythm, in February 1952. The first major reissue of this material was in 1969 and 1970, issued as the Anthology Of The Blues 12-volume LP series on Kent. In later years Joe Bihari said: "I was a gutsy kid who wasn't afraid of anything, traveling during a period where there was immense segregation and discrimination against African Americans. Indeed, I am proud of myself for doing what I could to resist this horrific prejudice. Looking back, I think I made major contributions to this rich music that we have all over America – and all my hard work paid off as this blues music is now recognized worldwide."

As Joe Bihari remembers, it was on a trip to Atlanta in 1949 that he conducted his first on-the-road session after he just happened to hear a guitarist playing on the street there. The bluesman he discovered was Pine Top Slim. "I took him right into our distributor's office and I recorded him at the local radio station where Zeas Sears was the top jock" "Applejack Boogie b/w I'm Gonna Carry On" were released on a short-lived Modern subsidiary called Colonial in 1949. The Biharis shelved the rest of the Pine Top Slim session, and it was only when Frank Scott and Bruce Bromberg compiled the historic Kent Anthology of the Blues LP series  that the rest of the material resurfaced.

Blues From The Deep SouthFor a long time it was thought Lane Hardin's 1935 record, "California Desert Blues b/w Hard Time Blues" was the only record he ever recorded. Unknown to most collectors Hardin cut a vanity record circa 1948. The record was found by collector Steve LaVere sometime in the 1990's in Los Angeles and purchased by Tefteller and has since been reissued. In around 1950 a group of artists sent in a batch of unlabeled acetates that were discovered at Modern in 1970. These recordings have remained a focal point for intense discussion ever since. When these sides were first issued on Kent's Blues From The Deep South LP, Arkansas Johnny Todd and Leroy Simpson were invented for two sides released. It turns out that Todd is actually Lane Hardin.

Junior Brooks (nicknamed "Crippled Red") was from Pine Bluff, AR. He worked the local club scene with his fellow musicians Baby Face Turner, Elmon "Driftin' Slim" Mickle, and Sunny Blair. The Bihari brothers held two sessions in Little Rock in 1951 and '52 to record some of the local talent. Brooks made four recordings at the 1951 sessions. He died shortly afterward. Also from this session we feature tracks by Baby Face Turner and Boyd Gilmore.

Years ago, I don't remember where, I picked up a record on Arhoolie's Blues Classic series called Juke Joint Blues. There were  some great sides on that record but the one I played over and over was Dr. Hepcat's rollicking, humorous "Hattie Green", a totally unique rendition of this classic Texas blues  number. Born in Austin, Texas, January 9, 1913, as Lavada Durst he  learned to play the piano as a child and emulated the styles he heard growing up. "I was self-taught," he recalls "I used to slip across the street to the church house and one-finger that piano. From Robert Shaw (Arhoolie CD 377), Durst learned the rudiments of what is now referred to as the Texas barrelhouse piano style. He worked part time as a disc jockey from 1948 to 1963 on KVET radio in Austin. On the air, he used the call name “Dr. Hepcat,” and during his show, which featured primarily rhythm and blues and jazz, he used to jive talk to pique the interests of his listeners in making introductions to records, public service announcements, and commercials. He cut a handful of sides in 1949 and latter day sides.

Now I remember exactly where I snagged a copy of Dan Pickett: 1949 Country Blues. I was at my favorite record shop, Finyl Vinyl, on New York's Second Avenue in the Village and they had the album displayed on the wall reserved for notable new records. Most times I walked in there without a plan, just poking around and always leaving with some albums tucked under my arm. This time I had been looking for this album after reading an intriguing review in Juke Blues magazine. Dan Pickett did one recording session for the Philadelphia-based Gotham label in 1949. His real name was James Founty who was born in Pike County, Alabama on August 31, 1907. Five singles were issued by the label while the rest of the titles weren't unearthed until four decades later (with some alternate takes of some issued titles to boot). No one is certain what he did after his one and only session as far as his life. He passed away in Boaz, Alabama on August 16, 1967, a few days short of his 60th birthday.

Jess Thomas: D Double Due Love YouIn strange twist I became friends decades later with Axel Küstner who played a big part in unraveling the mystery behind Pickett. Küstner went from his home in Germany to Alabama in 1993 to see what he could dig up. He found Founty's surviving family and also the lawyer's son, who had his father"s papers, though Founty's file was missing. He obtained the only known photograph that shows Founty and some information on his life. Künster published a two page teaser about the trip in Juke Blues where he wrote: "Until the whole story is published in Juke Blues, I'll just tell you this much: [Founty was] a classic rambler in the best blues tradition…"Künster wrote that over fifteen years ago and still no full article has been written. I've been trying to gently prod him into writing the full article – maybe someday! In 2010 John Jeremiah Sullivam wrote an article on Pickett for The Oxford American that published the Pickett photo, transcribed an interview with Künster and provided a bit more information on Pickett's life.

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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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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGheeCrow Jane Blues Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee 1938-48
Stick McGhee Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee Stick McGhee: New York Blues and R&B 1947-1955
Brownie MGheeI'm Talking About It Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee 1938-48
Brownie McGhee & Sonny TerryFour O'Clock In The MorningStick McGhee: New York Blues and R&B 1947-1955
Big Chief Ellis She Is Gone Cryin' and Singin' the BluesRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Leroy DallasI'm Going AwayRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Big Chief EllisDices, DicesRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Ralph WillisBlack And TanShake That Thing!: East Coast Blues 1935-1953
Stick McGhee She's Gone Rock Away BluesStick McGhee: New York Blues and R&B 1947-1955
Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry CC BabyStick McGhee: New York Blues and R&B 1947-195
Duke Bayou (Alec Seward)Doomed Rub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Duke Bayou (Alec Seward)Rub A Little BoogieRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Champion Jack Dupree Heart Breaking WomanChampion Jack Dupree: Early Cuts
Allen Bunn The Guy With The "45" New York Country Blues
Brownie McGhee & His Jook Block Buster Pawn Shop Blues Stick McGhee: New York Blues and R&B 1947-1955
Brownie McGhee & His Jook Block Buster I Feel So GoodStick McGhee: New York Blues and R&B 1947-1955
Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry Bottom BluesStick McGhee: New York Blues and R&B 1947-1955
Brownie MGheeMy Fault Rub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Brownie McGhee & His Jook Block BusterBrownie's Blues (Lordy Lord) Rub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGheeNews for You, Baby Rub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Bobby Harris Friendly AdviceRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Bob GaddyBicycle BoogieRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Bob Gaddy Blues Has Walked in My RoomRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGheeDangerous Woman (with a 45 in Her Hand)Rub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Sonny Terry Hooray, HoorayRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Big Maybelle Send MeThe Complete OKeh Recordings
Square WaltonFish Tail BluesRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Brownie McGhee & His Jook House Rockers Christina
Rub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Brownie McGhee & Sonny TerryLove's A DiseaseRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Sonny Terry Sonny Is Drinking Rub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Alonzo ScalesHard Luck ChildRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Alonzo ScalesShe's GoneRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56

Show Notes:

Today's program spotlights the music recorded by Sonny Terry & Brownies McGhee shortly after they arrived in New York. They first moved to New York City in 1942 moving in with Huddie and Martha Ledbetter. Initial recordings were for the Library of Congress and for Terry regular sessions for Moe Asch, who later set up the Folkways label. They first recorded as a duo for Savoy in 1944. They recorded more duets together in 1946 but after that that mainly pursued their own recording careers although they did record quite a bit together through the mid-50's. Today's show spans the years 1946 through 1955 and chart the duo's progress waxing downhome blues to the more popular R&B of the day. Starting around 1946 Brownie became an in-demand session guitarist, backing New York based artists like Big Chief Ellis, his brother Stick McGhee, Champion Jack Dupree, Leroy Dallas, and Bob Gaddy among others. Terry also did some session work during this period but to a lesser extent than Brownie. We spotlight all of these artists and more all aided either by Brownie or Sonny in the band and occasionally both. We also spin some of the best material they recorded as a team during this period. By the late 50's the duo had become full-time partners, developing the folk-blues style they would become so well known for and leaving the commercial R&B world behind for the white blues revival audience.

In 1946, Brownie cut a series of sessions for Alert, many of which were duets with Sonny Terry. Thereafter, each man mainly pursued his own recording career, though their paths crossed fairly often. McGhee stayed with Savoy; Terry recorded for Capitol. In late 1948, Bob Shad engaged McGhee for his Sittin' In With label, where he cut his own sessions and backed Sister Ethel Davenport, Leroy Dallas and Big Chief Ellis. In 1950 he returned to Savoy where he intermittently continued to record until 1955. Sometime around 1951/2, both he and Sonny Terry signed with the Jax and Jackson labels, owned by Bob Shad's brother Morty. It's not known whether recordings by the band they put together were recorded at the same time or over some months. As well as records by Terry and McGhee, there were singles by bassist/vocalist Bobby Harris and pianist Bob Gaddy. The same musicians were "Night Owls" for Terry, "Jook Block Busters" for McGhee and '"Alley Cats" for Gaddy. It was only a matter of time before Terry and McGhee encountered Bobby Robinson, whose Record Shop was just down 125th Street from the Apollo. "I lived at 108 126th Street," Robinson told John Broven. "Now two doors down from me, at I think 112, Brownie McGhee and his brother Stick lived and Sonny Terry. All night long in the summertime they got the windows open, you got the blues thing going all down the street. So finally l got Sonny and Brownie, we did a few things. That was my first blues things."

In 1954 Brownie cut a single for another Morty Shad label, Harlem. "Christina" used the melody of Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy". Brownie was cutting music firmly in R&B territory on his final four tracks for Savoy which attempted to meld Sonny Terry's harmonica with a set of mainstream R&B songs embellished by Mickey Baker's tough guitar licks. "When Its Love", "I'd Love To Love You", "Loves A Disease" and "My Fault" were basically Brownie's last efforts in this area of music. "My Fault" was also one of his most successful recordings. Around the time Brownie cut "Christina", Sonny made "Dangerous Woman (With A 45 1n Her Hand)"and "Love You Baby" probably with the same band, including McGhee and Bob Gaddy. "Dangerous Woman" hewed closer to a conventional R&B. In August 1953, he recorded for Victor, with a band that included Mickey Baker and Bobby Donaldson on bongos. "Hooray Hooray" was a reworking of The Woman Is killing Me." " Sonny Is Drinking" slowed the tempo, giving Mickey Baker ample room for his over-amped guitar.

Big Chief Ellis was from Alabama and after the war wound up in New York. At one point he was running a bar that was a hangout for local bluesmen. No one knew Chief could play until he sat down at the bar's piano and played. One of the musicians, Brownie McGhee, was impressed enough to call Bob Shad at Continental, who recorded Chief for the label and for the Sittin' In With label he later started. Ellis backed McGhee (and his brother Sticks) several times, including Sticks' one hit, "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee." Brownie backed Ellis on the latter's signature tune Dices Oh Dices, a song about his lifelong profession as a gambler. Ellis became a fixture of New York's small blues scene, playing every weekend with Brownie and occasionally with Sonny Terry. He also recorded with a large number of the city's R&B artists including Tarheel Slim, Leroy Dallas, Mickey Baker, and Ralph Willis.

After WW II Champion Jack Dupree settled in New York. In 1945-46 he recorded for Joe Davis. At this time he was living at Brownie McGhee's house on 126th Street. McGee backs Dupree on sessions between 1945 (Sonny Terry appears on some 1946 and 1952 sessions) and the mid-50's. Stick McGhee appears on a number of 1950's sessions as well.

Leroy Dallas was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1920 and moved to Memphis in 1924. Along his travels he played washboard behind Brownie McGhee and formed a band with James McMillan playing the streets and juke joints of Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee. McMillan taught Dallas guitar and the two went on to tour the southern states working with Frank Edwards who made recordings in1949 and Georgia Slim who made records in 1937. By 1943 Dallas settled in Brooklyn New York. He made his first records for Sittin’ In With in 1949 consisting of six songs. He was accompanied by Brownie McGhee who was instrumental in setting up the session. Dallas was rediscovered by blues researcher Pete Welding and made a few recordings in the 60’s.

Ralph Willis was born in Alabama in 1910 and based in North Carolina during the 1930s where he apparently played with Blind Boy Fuller and Buddy Moss. Willis recorded his debut in 1944, and continued until 1953, issuing fifty tracks via several record labels. McGhee backed him on sessions in 1949, 1950 and 1951. On his final two sessions he's backed by McGhee as well as Sonny Terry on some numbers.

Young Granville McGhee earned his nickname by pushing his polio-stricken older brother Brownie through the streets of Kingsport, TN, on a cart that he propelled with a stick. McGhee was inspired to pen "Drinkin' Wine" while in Army boot camp during World War II. McGhee's first recorded version of the tune for the Harlem label made little impression in 1947, but a rollicking 1949 remake for Atlantic (as Stick McGhee & His Buddies) proved a massive R&B hit ( Brownie played guitar and sang harmony vocal). After one more smash for Atlantic, 1951's "Tennessee Waltz Blues," McGhee moved along to Essex, King, Savoy, and Herald, where he made his last 45 in 1960 before passing the following year.

The Apollo session from which a single by Duke Bayou & His Mystic 6 derived has always been logged as another Jack Dupree pseudonym; however, although he's present, the session was logged in the Apollo files as by Alec Seward & His Washboard Band. The vocals are shared by Seward ("Rub A Little Boogie", "That's All Right With Me") and Bobby Harris ("She Can Shake", "Doomed"), with Dupree's piano, Brownie McGhee's guitar, an unknown washboard player and a drummer in attendance. Seward was born in Charles City County, Virginia and relocated to New York in 1924 where he befriended Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. He met Louis Hayes and the duo performed variously named as the Blues Servant Boys, Guitar Slim and Jelly Belly, or The Back Porch Boys. The duo recorded sides in 1944 and another batch in 1947. During the 1940's and 1950's Seward played and recorded with Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, McGhee and Terry. Seward issued the album Creepin' Blues (1965, Bluesville) with harmonica accompaniment by Larry Johnson. Later in the decade Seward worked in concert and at folk-blues festivals.  He died at the age of 70, in New York in May 1972.

While still in North Carolina during the early 1940's, Allen Bunn (Tarheel Slim) worked with several gospel groups. He broke away with Thurman Ruth and in 1949 formed their own group, the Jubilators. During a single day in New York in 1950, they recorded for four labels under four different names, One of those labels was Apollo, who convinced them to go secular. That's basically how the Larks, one of the seminal early R&B vocal groups, came to be. He cut two sessions of his own for the firm in 1952 under the name of Allen Bunn. As Alden Bunn, he encored on Bobby Robinson's Red Robin logo the next year. He also sang with  R&B vocal groups, the Wheels and the Lovers. As Tarheel Slim he made his debut in 1958 with his wife, Little Ann, in a duet format for Robinson's Fire imprint. He cut a pair of rockabilly raveups of his own, "Wilcat Tamer" and "No. 9 Train." After a few years off the scene, Tarheel Slim made a bit of a comeback during the early 1970's, with an album for Trix, his last recording. He died in 1977.

Both as a session man and featured recording artist, pianist Bob Gaddy made his presence known on the New York blues scene during the 1950's. Gaddy was drafted in 1943, and that's when he began to take the piano seriously. He picked up a little performing experience in California clubs while stationed on the West Coast before arriving in New York in 1946. Gaddy gigged with Brownie McGhee and guitarist Larry Dale around town, McGhee often playing on Gaddy's waxings for Jackson (his 1952 debut, "Bicycle Boogie"), Jax, Dot, Harlem, and from 1955 on, Hy Weiss' Old Town label. There Gaddy stayed the longest, waxing the fine "I Love My Baby," "Paper Lady," "Rip and Run," and quite a few more into 1960.

Several artists featured today have shadowy backgrounds. Little is known of Bobbie Harris who may have been from South Carolina and cut sides for several New York labels. Harris played bass and sang. He cut just over a dozen sides between 1951-52 with Brownie McGee backing him on at least two sessions. Nothing is known of vocalist Square Walton who cut a four song session in 1953 for Victor backed by Sonny Terry. A 1954 session wasn't released. Alonzo Scales was born in NC in 1888 and cut a 1949 session backed by Champion Jack and McGhee for Abbey and a four song session in 1955 for Wing backed by McGhee, Terry and Bob Gaddy.

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Lil GreenRomance In The DarkLil Green 1940-1941
Lil GreenKnockin' Myself OutLil Green 1940-1941
Lil GreenWhy Don't You Do Right? Lil Green 1940-1941
St. Louis JimmyBack on My Feet, AgainSt. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 1 1932-1944
St. Louis JimmyYour Evil WaysLivin' That Wild Life: The Herald-Ember Blues & Gospel Masters Vol. 1
St. Louis JimmyDog House BluesSt. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 2 1944-1955
Arthur CrudupIf I Get LuckyArthur Crudup Vol. 1 1941-1946
Arthur CrudupChicago Blues Arthur Crudup Vol. 1 1941-1946
Arthur CrudupKeep Your Arms Around MeArthur Crudup Vol. 1 1941-1946
Merline JohnsonHe Roars Like A LionMerline Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1938
Merline JohnsonSeparation BluesMerline Johnson Vol. 2 1938-1939
Merline JohnsonCrime Don't PayMerline Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1938
Tommy McCLennanWhisky Head Woman The Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanYou Can Mistreat Me HereThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanBottle It Up And GoThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Lil GreenI'm A FoolLil Green 1942-1946
Lil GreenMy Mellow ManLil Green 1940-1941
Lil GreenLast Go Round BluesLil Green 1942-1946
St. Louis Jimmy Going Down Slow St. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 1 1932-1944
St. Louis Jimmy Florida HurricaneSt. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 2 1944-1955
St. Louis Jimmy Hard Work Boogie (Hard Luck Boogie)St. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 2 1944-1955
Arthur CrudupCrudup's After Hours BluesArthur Crudup Vol. 2. 1946-1949
Arthur CrudupHand Me Down My Walking CaneArthur Crudup Vol. 2. 1946-1949
Arthur CrudupThat's All Right Arthur Crudup Vol. 2. 1946-1949
Merline JohnsonGot A Man In The 'Bama MinesMerline Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1938
Merline JohnsonBad Whiskey BluesOKeh Chicago Blues
Merline JohnsonYou Can't Shoot Your PistolMerline Johnson Vol. 2 1938-1939
Tommy McCLennanCotton Patch BluesThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanCross Cut SawThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanBoogie Woogie WomanThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
St. Louis JimmyMother's DaySunnyland Slim & His Pals: The Classic Sides
Arthur CrudupIf You Ever Been To GeorgiaArthur Crudup Vol. 4 1952-1954

Show Notes:

Read Notes:  Pt. 1 / Pt. 2 Read Notes:  Pt. 1 / Pt. 2

Today's show is a companion of sorts to a pair we did a couple of years back where we spotlighted popular 30's and 40's artists like Washboard Sam, Jazz Gillum, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Bumble Bee Slim, Bill Gaither, Johnnie Temple, and Doctor Clayton, all stars on the 30's and 40's Chicago blues scene. Today we feature several more  artists from this period, both well known and little remembered; on tap today are female singers Lil Green and Merline Johnson, southern styled artists like Tommy McClennan and Arthur Crudup and the contemplative blues of St. Louis Jimmy.

In spite of the economic depression of the 1930's, blues as a business was slowly but steadily on the upswing. With a wealth of talent available, and more arriving every day to both make and buy records, a few large record companies were regularly recording in Chicago. Brunswick, RCA Victor/Bluebird, Columbia, and others set up offices and studios, and with the influence of professional A&R men and producers (most notably Lester Melrose at Bluebird), certain subcategories and signature sounds began emerging. Particularly notable was the "Bluebird sound. Sam Charters characterized the sound as the "Bluebird Beat" or more unkindly as the "Melrose Mess" by Mike Rowe in his pioneering book Chicago Blues. As Rowe notes "it was a white businessman, Lester Melrose, who was really responsible for shaping the Chicago sound of the late 30's and 40's." Melrose had said "From March 1934 to February 1951 I recorded at least 90 percent of all rhythm-and-blues talent for RCA Victor and Columbia Records…" As Rowe further explains: "But Melrose had more than a large stable of blues artists under his control. Since only a few of them had regular accompanists most of them would play on each others records and thus Melrose has a completely self-contained unit… …The final stage of this musical incest was completed when they started recording each others songs." The result was a consistent, sometime cookie cutter sound, although the best artists would consistently transcend these limitations. The "Bluebird Sound" anticipated the Chicago blues of the post-war era featuring tight, smooth small band arrangements that were filled out with piano, bass drums and often clarinet or saxophone. All of today's artists recorded for Bluebird, if only briefly, while Arthur Crudup, Lil Green and Tommy McClennan spent virtually their entire career with the label.

Lil Green is one of those artists that made a big impression on me when I first heard her. I was working at the college radio station at the time when I found a closet filled with unsorted records. Of course I had to go through every one of them and there I uncovered the album Lil Green: Romance In The Dark on the RCA label. That record got plenty of spins and I've been a fan ever since. Also in that closet was another album in that same series, Arthur Crudup: The Father Of Rock And Roll. Both albums boasted a fine selection of tunes, great photos and liner notes Liner notes by Leonard Feather on the Green and Stephen Calt on the Crudup, presented in gatefold sleeves.

Classifying singers like Lil Green are tough as Feather points out: "…she was  not strictly a  bIues Performer. A few of the  tracks  in  this album  are  based  on  the classic 12-bar formula,  but  most of the others are cast in the popular song mold. Lil Green could better be classified as an an entertainer who sang, generally for black audiences, the kind of music that was categorized during the 1940s as rhythm and blues." The following comes from I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy by Bob Reisman: " According to Lil Green, after she had been orphaned at age ten in Clarksdale, Mississippi, she had moved in 1929 to Chicago, where she dropped out of high school. R. H. Harris, the gifted lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, reported that she had killed a man in a brawl and been sent to prison for her crime. He remembered visiting the prison so that he could hear her sing in the Sunday services. 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 Bill, Simeon Henry on piano, and New Orleans veteran Ransom Knowling on bass. That session produced her first hit, "Romance in the Dark," for which writing credit was split between Lil and Bill. The song, often abbreviated to "In the Dark," went on to become a standard and over time entered the repertoire of artists such as Dinah Washington and Nina Simone. Jazz historian Leonard Feather notes that the song "was remarkable in its day for the relatively frank sexuality of its lyrics," in which the singer proudly proclaims that "In the dark I get such a thrill / when he presses his fingertips upon my lips." The song showcased Green’s voice, which Feather described as "salt-and-vinegar," to which it might be added that she was able to sound vulnerable, sexy, and brassy, all in the same three-minute song.Based on the song’s success, Melrose recorded Green several times over the next year. Soon she was the subject of articles in the entertainment section of the Chicago Defender, which indicated that she had become identified as more than a blues singer. It meant that she was getting booked into clubs that catered to black audiences looking for an evening of music that they might identify as jazz or pop music.

The other song with which Green’s name continues to be associated was Joe McCoy’s composition "Why Don’t You Do Right," which she  recorded in April 1941. After the song brought some success to Green,  mostly with black record buyers, Peggy Lee’s later recording became a national hit for the Goodman band, and, in the words of one music historian, 'essentially established Lee as a name vocalist.' While Lil Green’s prominence ultimately fell short of Lee’s, the two hits launched her into star status, and in 1941 she began a two-year period of touring the United States. Appearing with the Tiny Bradshaw Orchestra, Green performed on some of the most prestigious stages in the country, including the Apollo and the Savoy in New York City. During her return visits to Chicago, she played the Regal Theater, where stars like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie appeared when they came to town." 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. I wasn’t really writing them songs—I just hummed the tune until Henry, the piano player, and the bass player Ransom Knowling, could find the right chords to fit the tune. I hummed to them then she would sing the words that I’d wrote down for her."

"As Bill described it, he, Henry, and Knowling accompanied Green on her first two tours, and then she gradually dropped the three musicians, eventually replacing the small combo with a big band. Bill told of going to performances she gave at the Apollo Theater in the mid-1940s and receiving a warm greeting from her each time: 'It made me feel good to know that she hadn’t forgotten the ones she had started out with.' Green even went so far, in Bill’s account, to invite the trio over for dinner in Chicago, although he noted that 'she would eat most of it herself and then tell us to help ourselves.'  In the years after World War II, Green would still record and tour, but there would be no follow-up hits on the scale of her early successes. She performed occasionally in Chicago clubs in the early 1950's, and her final recording session was in 1951. When she died in 1954, the Defender made no mention of her passing."

As Calt notes: "Between 1941 and 1956 Crudup cut some eighty-odd sides for Victor and estabiished himseif as one of the most successful black performers of the period all without the benefit of stage appearances. (At the height of his popularity he worked the tank towns of Mississippi and Chicago's south side bars). …Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, the son of a guitarist, was born in 1905 at Forest, a small Mississippi farm community set midway between Jackson and Meridian. Although he was roughly contemporary with many of the traditional blues stylists who recorded in the Twenties, he began playing guitar at the relatively advanced age of  thirty-two."

Crudup is probably best known through Elvis Presley who recorded three of Crudup's classics during his heyday: "That's All Right Mama" (Elvis' Sun debut in 1954), "So Glad You're Mine," and "My Baby Left Me." Around 1940, Crudup migrated to Chicago from Mississippi. He was playing for spare change on the streets and living in a packing crate underneath an elevated train track when RCA/Bluebird producer Lester Melrose dropped a few coins in Crudup's hat. Melrose hired Crudup to play a party that 1941 night at Tampa Red's house attended by the cream of Melrose's stable: Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Lil Green. By September of 1941, he was himself an RCA artist. Crudup hit the uppermost reaches of the R&B lists during the mid-'40s with "Rock Me Mama," "Who's Been Foolin' You," "Keep Your Arms Around Me," "So Glad You're Mine," and "Ethel Mae." He cut the original "That's All Right" in 1946 backed by his usual rhythm section of bassist Ransom Knowling and drummer Judge Riley, but it wasn't a national hit at the time. Crudup cut prolifically for Victor until 1954. (He had already cut singles in 1952 for Trumpet disguised as Elmer James and for Checker as Percy Lee Crudup). In 1961, Crudup surfaced after a long layoff with an album for Bobby Robinson's Harlem-based Fire logo dominated by remakes of his Bluebird hits. Another lengthy hiatus preceded Delmark boss Bob Koester's following the tip of Big Joe Williams to track him down. He was reunited with Ransom Knowling (Willie Dixon also handled bass duties on some of his sides). Finally, Crudup began to make some decent money, playing various blues and folk festivals for appreciative crowds for a few years prior to his 1974 death.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1903 James Burke Oden began singing, playing piano and writing songs in his 20's in St. Louis.  Oden moved to St. Louis circa 1917 and by the age of seventeen was working at a barber shop where many blues singers would congregate. He taught himself piano around this time and fell in with pianist Roosevelt Sykes (the two remained frequent musical partners throughout the ensuing decades). Oden's piano playing soon fell by the wayside as he was intimidated by the many talented St Louis piano players. "There was just so many good pianp players on St. Louis in those days," he told Paul Oliver. "Peetie Wheatstraw, Roosevelt Sykes, (James) 'Steady Roll' Johnson and all those guys. But I used to write blues for some of them. My blues come mostly from women and I've had quite a few to give me trouble…and that's the reason why I started out to writing blues. …(Roosevelt Sykes) told me I had a voice for singing and I just started out practicing with him and writing – I never sung no one's number but my own and I been writing songs (ever since)." Chicago eventually became his base of operations although he still traveled the circuit, which included trips back to St. Louis and excursions down to Texas on occasion.  For a short time he operated a blues club in Indianapolis with Memphis Minnie. Oden was also involved in the JOB label. JOB was businessman Joe Brown's second and more lasting venture into the record business, after Opera. When the label opened in August 1949 his partner was Oden, but as the bluesman recorded just one session early in the days of the label, it's suspected that his share was quickly bought out by Brown or someone else.

 
St. Louis Jimmy Oden  

Oden enjoyed a fairly prolific recording career during the '30's and '40's, appearing on Champion, Bluebird (where he hit with "Goin' Down Slow" in 1941), Columbia, Bullet in 1947, Miracle, Aristocrat (there he cut "Florida Hurricane" in 1948 accompanied by pianist Sunnyland Slim and a young guitarist named Muddy Waters), Mercury, Savoy, and Apollo. Oden described the origins of his classic "Goin' Down Slow" to Paul Oliver: "(it) started from a girl in St. Louis, I see the condition she was in – pregnant, trying to lose a kid, see. And she looked like she was going down slow. I made that remark to my sister and it came in my mind and I started to write it like that." Scattered singles for Duke (with Sykes on piano) and Parrot (a 1955 remake of "Goin' Down Slow") set the stage for Oden's 1960 album debut for Prestige's Bluesville subsidiary (naturally, it included yet another reprise of "Goin' Down Slow").  After a serious road accident in 1957 he devoted himself to writing and placed material with Muddy Waters ("Soon Forgotten" and "Take the Bitter with the Sweet" ), Howlin' Wolf ("What a Woman!") and John Lee Hooker. In 1960 he made an album with Bluesville Records (Goin' Down Slow), and sang on a Candid Records session with Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Otis Spann. Oden made guest appearances as a singer on several other artist's sessions in the 60's, and, had he not withdrawn from the tour, would have made it to Europe as part of the 1968 American folk Blues Festival. He appeared as a guest at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and recorded on the soundtrack for the 1970 British film Blues Like Showers Of Rain. Oden passed in 1977. Sadly few came to his funeral outside of Muddy Waters and Sunnyland who came to pay their respects. Tony Russell's assessment is an astute one:  "Oden could never be called an exciting artist, but his lyrics always had both head and heart in their making and he sang them with a craftman's pride in his own good work."

Merline Johnson was one of the most prolific female artists of the 30's, with 70 issued sides, yet little is known about her. The bulk of her recordings were made between 1937 and 1940 with a last, unissued session, in 1947. Blind John Davis said of her: "…Big Bill would have to take her home so his wife could watch her so she wouldn’t go and get drunk. But when she hit that microphone, though, boy, she was on her way." Despite the efforts of her family in Milwaukee to keep her under control, John says, "She’d get to thinkin’ about Chicago, they’d wake up the next morning and Merline'd be in Chicago. She used to call me up and just cuss and laugh. "…She didn’t like good whiskey," Davis laughs. "You could go out there in Jewtown and get moonshine and still hear it foamin’ in the glass. It was still fermenting. She was crazy about it. But she was a nice person." The aunt of R&B vocalist LaVern Baker, Johnson was usually billed as the "The Yas Yas Girl", a bawdy nickname,  although her records weren't all that suggestive.

Johnson didn't have the outsize personality of Memphis Minnie or the vocal abilities of Lil Green yet it's not hard to see why she was so obviously popular among black audiences; she possessed a strong expressive voice, which hinted at toughness and confidence and she delivered her blues in well written songs that dealt frankly with male/female relationships, sex, crime and whiskey. Neil Slaven provides an insightful portrait of her musical style: "The trenchancy of Johnson's singing underlines a hint of masculinity in her performances., more in the delivery than in the content. That impression is enhanced by her clear diction and confident projection. Although she did it sparingly,  she's perhaps the only woman to directly imitate Peetie Wheatstraw …Echoes of Big Bill Broonzy and Jazz Gillum also resound, and Gillum recorded an answer song to her "Got A man In The 'Bamma Mine." She was obviously a cherished member of the Lester Melrose stable, which explains the presence of stalwarts such as Black bob, Joshua Altheimer, Blind John Davis and Broonzy in her backing bands. She flirted with a more jazz-oriented style in the middle of her career, backed by her Rhythm Rascals and Her Jazz Boys, and did a fair imitation (though nothing more) of Billie Holiday in "Fine And Mellow." …Although never achieving  the status of required listening, the Yas Yas Girl's records are of dependable quality and entertaining."

Tommy McClennan is a contradiction; at once wholly individualistic with his powerhouse gravel-throated voice, sprinkled with frequent entertaining spoken asides propelled by an exciting, rudimentary guitar style while on the other hand derivative, with a repertoire mostly drawn from other artists. espite his limited bag of songs, his limited guitar prowess (despite the boastfully titled "I’m a Guitar King"), McClennan made it work through the sheer force of his outsized personality and his intense commitment to his material. McClennan arrived in Chicago in 1939 supposedly through the intervention of Big Bill Broonzy who told Bluebird talent scout Lester Melrose he ought to look him up. His record label, Bluebird, and the record buying public obviously saw something in McClennan as he cut forty sides (at five eight-song sessions), everyone issued at the time, between 1939 and 1942.

McClennan is remembered by bluesmen like Big Joe Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rogers and most importantly Honeyboy Edwards. Our knowledge of McClennan has been expanded since then with the release of Honeyboy Edwards’ 1997 autobiography, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, where he put pen to ink,  recollecting at length about his old friend and partner. "Tommy had a big mouth.  …Tommy played the guitar and gambled, shot dice, played cards. … Tommy, he wasn’t really a guitar picker; he was mostly a frailer, and played a few chords in the key of C, running chords with that big loud voice. …Tommy McClennan and me played both sides of town [Greenwood, MS]. We used to serenade in the white neighborhoods. We’d walk down the street amongst all those old houses, strumming our guitars, and we’d see them curtains fly back and they’d chuck nickels and dimes out in the street for us. We’d play ‘Tight Like That’, little jump-up songs for them. Then we’d go back across the river where we come from, raise hell and drink, holler our asses off all night long, singing the ‘Cotton Patch Blues’ in them shotgun houses in our part of town."

McClennan remained in Chicago and seemed to follow the path of Tommy Johnson, a slave to alcohol who lived long after he recorded but never stepped into a studio again. Honeyboy remembers seeing McClennan singing at Turner's on 40th and Indiana during the late 40's: "He played a little bit and he sang, but he didn’t play too long ‘fore he just …Tommy just dranked so much he just, he couldn't…" Honeyboy encountered his old friend one more time: "One day in 1962 I was down around Twenty-Second street and Clark at a big junkyard. …I went with some boys to sell some scrap iron and who do I see there but Tommy McClennan! Tommy was living out there in a truck trailer made into kind of a house. " Honeyboy tried to look after him but "he studied drinking all the time. …He asked me to take him back to that [hobo] Jungle. I carried him back down there. …Later on I heard he had taken sick, that he was in the hospital. …Tommy died in that hospital in 1962. …That alcohol was what Tommy was living for, but it ate him plumb up."

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