Sun 14 Jun 2009
The music on today's program spans a fascinating period, roughly the first decade of post-war blues, when the blues was evolving into what would be called R&B and a short hop later to rock and roll. Today's however is a throwback; this is rough and tumble down-home blues geared towards an audience that was still eager to hear earthy rural blues. Many of these listeners were still in the south while many other were transplanted southerners still eager to hear the older styles. These were exciting times with numerous small labels throwing their hat in the ring to try to cash in on the market. Our spotlight is on the Texas variety of down-home blues. Some of today's artists achieved a measure of success such as Lightnin' Hopkins, Lil Son Jackson and Smokey Hogg while those like Lawyer Houston, Ernest Lewis, Manny Nichols, Stickhorse Hammond, Sonny Boy Holmes, Johnny Beck and others cut fine sides but remain utterly obscure outside of hardcore collectors. 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. This was "the last grand hurrah of local blues recorded for, and often by, local entrepreneurs."
By the early 1950’s, competition among independent record labels in Texas was intense. Macy’s, Freedom, and Peacock (as well as Bob Shad’s New York-based Sittin-In-With) were all involved in recording local and regional blues musicians. In Houston there were fewer opportunities for recording than in Dallas until after World War II, when several independent labels were started. The earliest to record blues was Gold Star, founded by Bill Quinn in 1946 as a hillbilly label to record Harry Choates. In 1947 Quinn decided to enter the "race" market by recording Lightnin' Hopkins. Today's program features several Gold Star artists including Lil Son Jackson, Leroy Ervin, Andy Thomas, Lee Hunter and Perry Cain who gives us the title for today's show. Among the Dallas labels we spin tracks form Blue Bonnet and (Star) Talent. Blue Bonnet Records was formed by Herb Rippa in 1947 in Dallas as a hillbilly label but near the end of Blue Bonnet's three-year existence Rippa began recording a handful of blues artists, most notable being Frankie Lee Sims. Pianist Charlie Braddix cut two sides for the label in 1948. Both Willie Lane and Rattlesnake Cooper cut sides for (Star) Talent, a Dallas label owned by father and daughter Jesse and Louise Erickson. The label recorded blues, country and gospel and cut the sides first sides by Rufus Thomas and Professor Longhair.
The spirit of Lightnin' Hopkins looms over many of these recordings and we play tracks by some who were in Hopkins orbit. Thunder Smith played piano behind Hopkins on his first two sessions for Aladdin in 1946 and 1947, never achieving the success that Hopkins did. Hopkins backed Smith on a four song session for Aladdin in 1946 with Smith cutting one session apiece in 1947 for Gold Star and in 1948 for Down Town. He reportedly died in Houston in 1965. L.C. Williams was a singer/tap dancer who also occasionally drummed behind Hopkins. He arrived in Houston in 1945 and was one of the many characters who hung around in Lightning’s orbit, sitting on stoops drinking beer and wine, shooting the breeze with passers-by. He made his first record in 1947 with Hopkins on piano and guitar. Hopkins plays guitar on a four-song session for Gold Star in 1948 with Williams making some final sides for Eddie’s and Freedom between 1948-1950. He died in Houston of TB in 1960. Frankie Lee Sims claimed to be a cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins. Sims cut his first 78's for Blue Bonnet Records in 1948 in Dallas, but didn’t taste anything resembling regional success until 1953, when his "Lucy Mae Blues" did well down south. Sims recorded fairly prolifically for Los Angeles-based Specialty into 1954, then switched to the Ace label in 1957 to cut great rockers like "Walking with Frankie" and "She Likes to Boogie Real Low." He recorded for Bobby Robinson in late 1960 but these sides were unreleased and didn’t surface until decades later when they were released on the British Krazy Kat label. Robinson ran the NYC based labels Fire, Fury and Enjoy. Sims died at age 53 in Dallas of pneumonia.
Mercy Dee Walton was a Texas émigré, who had played piano around Waco from the age of 13 before hitting the West Coast in 1938. He debuted on record in 1949 with "Lonesome Cabin Blues" for the tiny Spire logo, which became a national R&B hit. Those sides were cut in Fresno, but Los Angeles hosted some of the pianist's best sessions for Imperial in 1950 and Specialty in 1952-53. After a lengthy layoff, Walton returned to the studio in a big way in 1961, recording prolifically for Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label. He died the following year in December 1962.
In 1946, Lil' Son Jackson shipped off a demo to Bill Quinn, who owned Houston based Gold Star Records. Jackson scored a national R&B hit, "Freedom Train Blues," in 1948. It would prove Jackson's only national hit, although his 1950-1954 output for Imperial Records must have sold consistently, judging from how many sides the L.A. firm issued. He gave up the blues during the mid-'50s after an auto wreck, resuming work as a mechanic. Arhoolie Records boss Chris Strachwitz convinced Jackson to cut an album in 1960. Jackson died May 30, 1976, in Dallas, TX, from cancer.
Smokey Hogg was a down-home bluesman who scored a pair of major R&B hits in 1948 and 1950 ("Long Tall Mama" and "Little School Girl") and cut prolifically for a slew of labels including Exclusive, Modern, Bullet, Macy's, Sittin' in With, Imperial, Mercury, Specialty, Fidelity, Combo, Federal, and Showtime). Smokey's cousin John Hogg also played the blues, waxing six sides in 1951.
One of the last of the old-time Texas barrelhouse pianists, Alex Moore was an institution in Dallas, his lifelong home. Moore had one of the longest recording careers in blues history. Moore began performing in the early '20s, playing clubs and parties around his hometown of Dallas; he usually performed under the name Whistlin' Alex. In 1929, he recorded his first sessions, for Columbia Records. Moore didn't record again until 1937, when he made a few records for Decca. Moore didn't record again until 1951, when RPM/Kent had him cut several songs. Arhoolie Records signed the pianist in 1960, and those records helped make him a national name. For the rest of the '60s, he played clubs and festivals in America, as well as a handful of festival dates in Europe. He continued to perform until his death in 1989. The year before his death, he recorded a final album titled Wiggle Tail.
Among the great unknowns are artists such as Manny Nichols, Son Tillis, Laywer Houston, Nathaniel "Stickhorse" Hammond, Wright Holmes, Lee Hunter, Sonny Boy Holmes, Luther Stoneham and Dr. Hepcat among others. Manny Nichols cut nine sides between 1949-1953 for several small labels, first in Texas and then in California. He also recorded as West Texas Slim. In addition he backed the mysterious Miss Country Slim on one record. J.R. Fullbright, owner of Elko Records, first brough Son Tillis in the studio in Longview, Texas but these were unreleased. He then brought him over to Gold Star where he cut several sides. Interviewed in 1968, Fullbright though Tillis was in the penitentiary for life for murder. Nathaniel "Stickhorse" Hammond is one of the oldest performers featured, having been born in Dallas in 1896. Laywer Houston cut an eight-song session for Atlantic in 1950 and another eight-song session circa 1953/54 that was never issued. Lavada Durst AKA Dr.Hepcat was the first black disc jockey in Texas on Austin‘s KVET. He published The Jives of Dr.Hepcat based on his outlandish radio patter. He cut early records on Peacock, Uptown and later recordings on Documentary Arts. Wright Holmes had only three sides issued in 1947, with several unissued. He was rediscovered and interviewed by Blues Unlimited magazine but had turned to relgion and was no longer playing blues. Lee hunter was the brother of the more famous Ivory Joe Hunter and cut a lone 78 for Gold Star in 1948.