Blues writer Chris Smith wrote the following regarding Alabama blues: “Alabama attracted many folklorists, from John Lomax on down, seeking the oldest styles of black music in a state which long had a reputation for backwardness, poverty and racism. …Despite flourishing gospel quartet and piano traditions, the state’s blues are comparatively under-represented on ‘race’ records.” As Paul Oliver noted: “For the recording men on their infrequent field trips, Memphis, Dallas and Atlanta were adequate (recording) centres. With talent scouts in each centre, and one placed in Jackson, they had the south 'covered' – for the commercial business of supplying enough talent for recording. But the outcome of this was that Alabama was largely neglected by the location recording units and even by the talent scouts…” Nonetheless several Alabama artists cut records in the 20’s and 30’s including Ed Bell, Jaybird Coleman, George “Bullet” Williams, Ollis Martin, the Birmingham Jug Band, Lucille Bogan, Daddy Stovepipe and Pillie Bolling. There were also a number of excellent piano players based around Birmingham who got on record including Cow Cow Davenport, Jabbo Williams, Walter Roland and Robert McCoy. In addition there were some non-commercial recordings made including recordings made for the Library of Congress by John Lomax.
Ed Bell grew up in Greenville, Alabama, where he learned from an older cousin. As well as sides under his own name, Bell also cut sides using the name Barefoot Bill and Sluefoot Joe. He cut sessions in 1927, 1929 and 1930 for Paramount, Columbia and the QRS label. He reportedly gave up the blues to become a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama. Pillie Bolling was a Greenville associate of Ed Bell who cut two duets with Bell in 1930 and two solo sides.
There were several fine pianists based in Birmingham including Cow Cow Davenport, Jabbo Smith, Robert McCoy and Walter Roland. Cow Cow Davenport is remembered most for his famous song "Cow Cow Blues" which is one of the earliest recorded examples of the Boogie-Woogie. Davenport learned to play piano and organ in his father's church and was supposedly expelled from the Alabama Seminary in 1911 for playing Ragtime at a church function. Davenport's early career revolved around carnivals and vaudeville. He toured TOBA with an act called Davenport and Company with Blues singer Dora Carr and they recorded together in 1925 and 1926. Davenport briefly teamed up with Blues singer Ivy Smith in 1928 and worked as a talent scout for Brunswick and Vocalion records in the late 1920s and played rent parties in Chicago. He moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1930 and toured the TOBA vaudeville circuit and recorded with Sam Price. In 1938 he suffered a stroke that left his right hand somewhat paralyzed and affected his piano playing for the rest of his life, but he remained active as a vocalist until he regained enough strength in his hand to play again. In 1942 Freddie Slack's Orchestra scored a huge hit with "Cow Cow Boogie" with vocals by Ella Mae Morse which sparked the Boogie-Woogie craze of the early 1940s. Davenport tried to make a comeback in the forties and fifties but his career was often interrupted by sickness. He died in 1955 of heart problems in Cleveland.
Jabbo Williams hailed from Birmingham Where he was likely discovered by Paramount in 1932. He also spent time in St. Louis. He cut eight sides during the depths of the depression all of which are exceedingly rare. Little is known about his background. “Polock Blues” takes its name form an area of East St. Louis while “Pratt City” refers to a suburb of Birmingham.
Robert McCoy spent virtually all his life in Birmingham and knew the above pianists. At a Birmingham session in 1937 he backed artists Guitar Slim, Charlie Campbell and Peanut The Kidnapper. McCoy didn’t record under his own name until the late 50’s when a teenaged Birmingham blues fan recorded two albums by McCoy issued on his Vulcan label. Most of this material has be reissued on the Delmark CD Bye Bye Baby.
Likely born in or around Birmingham circa 1900, Walter Roland first emerged on the city's blues circuit during the 1920s, presumably running in the same circles as Jabo Williams; a skilled, versatile pianist whose repertoire ran the gamut from slow blues to boogie-woogies, Roland was also a fine vocalist and even a talented guitarist. He went to New York City three times between 1933 and 1935 to record for ARC; during this same period he also accompanied Lucille Bogan, additionally recording with Josh White and Sonny Scott. Guitarist Sonny Scott cut fourteen sides for Vocalion in 1933 all backed by Walter Roland. After 1935 Roland activities remain unknown.
Lucille Bogan often focused on explicit sexual themes, like prostitution, adultery and lesbianism, and social ills such as alcoholism, drug addiction and abusive relationships. She was born in Mississippi but grew up in Birmingham. In 1923 she made her debut but the records apparently didn't sell well because she didn't record again until 1927 for the Paramount and Brunswick labels after moving to Chicago. Between 1933 and 1935 she performed and recorded under the pseudonym Bessie Jackson and worked with Walter Roland. Bogan's recording career came to an end in 1935. In the late 1930s or early l940s, Bogan moved to the West Coast. She died in Los Angeles in 1948.
There were several fine harmonica blowers who hailed from Alabama including Jaybird Coleman, George "Bullet" Williams, Daddy Stovepipe and Ollis Martin. Jaybird Coleman was born in Gainsville, Al and would perform at parties, both for his family and friends. Coleman served in the Army during World War I and after his discharge, he moved to the Birmingham, AL area. Coleman made recordings in 1927 and 1930 for Black Patti, Silvertone, Gennett and Columbia with all of the sessions recorded in Birmingham except his last which was cut in Atlanta. During the 30s and 40s, Coleman played on street corners throughout Alabama. He died in 1950.
Originally from Alabama, George "Bullet" Williams included superb train imitations and also an atmospheric “The Escaped Convict" at his only session in 1928. The latter title referred to the harsh convict-lease system in the South, which was still on the Alabama statute book in 1930.
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 cut further sessions in 1927, 1931 and 1935. 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 in 1960.
Among the unknowns where harmonica artist Ollis Martin who cut one record in 1927 for Gennett. The Birmingham Jug Band recorded 9 sides at a single session in 1930 with a fine unknown harmonica player. It was once though Jaybird Coleman was a member of the group. Bob Campbell cut four issued sides in 1934 including the fine "Starvation Farm Blues."
There were a number of non-commercial recordings made in Alabama including sessions by John Lomax for the Libray of Congress. Among those Lomax recorded were Tom Bell, Tom Bradford and Vera Hall. Lomax met Hall in the 1930s in Alabama and and recorded her for the Library of Congress. Lomax wrote that she “had the loveliest voice [he] had ever recorded.” She cut sides in 1937, 1939, 1940 and was recorded by Lomax's son Alan in late 40's and 50's.