Bluebird B-5257 – Fort Worth Doughboys – 1932

Boasting ninety years of continuous operation, and an active recording career only slightly shorter, the venerable Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill of Fort Worth, Texas, can rightly lay claim to the title of longest-running western swing band in the music’s history.

The original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys, circa 1931; from left-to-right Milton Brown, Derwood Brown, announcer Truett Kimsey, Bob Wills, and Herman Arnspiger.

The progenitor of the Light Crust Doughboys was born when aspiring jazz singer Milton Brown joined forces with Jim Rob Wills and his Wills Fiddle Band (consisting of Wills and guitarist Herman Arnspiger) in 1930.  Finding success in local dance halls, they soon took their act on the radio, bringing on Brown’s younger brother Derwood and fiddler-banjoist-guitarist Sleepy Johnson.  After a brief sponsorship by the Aladdin Lamp Company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, they convinced W. Lee O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company to take the group on as the “Light Crust Doughboys” in 1931, drawing their name from the brand of flour produced by the mill.  After two weeks of successful broadcasts, O’Daniel canceled their show, citing distaste for their “hillbilly music”.  Fortunately, the will of the people prevailed and the Doughboys were brought back by popular demand (under the stipulation that the boys also work day jobs at the mill).  Though O’Daniel initially forbade his band from recording, the Doughboys managed to get in a brief recording session during the RCA Victor Company’s 1932 field trip to Dallas, cutting one record under the rather thinly veiled pseudonym “Fort Worth Doughboys”.  Not long after that session, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys began to disintegrate under O’Daniel’s rather draconian leadership.  Brown found the arrangement too stifling, and quit the band in 1932 to form his own Musical Brownies, ultimately achieving much greater success than he could have found as a Doughboy and cementing his position as the founder of western swing before his untimely death in 1936.  Wills, on the other hand, was fired in 1933 as an unreliable employee, and thereafter moved to Waco to form his Playboys.  O’Daniel subsequently hired a new group of musicians and evidently retracted his embargo on recording, bringing the group to Chicago for a 1933 session followed by consistent record dates afterward.  W. Lee O’Daniel himself was fired from the Burrus Mill in 1935, after which he founded his own mill and string band to go with it—the Hillbilly Boys—while the Light Crust Doughboys managed to carry on just fine without him.

Bluebird B-5257 was recorded on February 9, 1932, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas Texas.  It was originally issued on Victor 23653, which sold a total of 1,246 copies, and also reissued on Electradisk 2137, Sunrise S-3340, Montgomery Ward M-4416 and M-4757, and, in Canada, on Aurora 415.  The Fort Worth Doughboys are Milton Brown, singing, Bob Wills on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, and Sleepy Johnson on tenor guitar.

Whether it is to be considered the first western swing record remains a point of contention among historians of the genre; some argue that the music thereon lacks the improvisational element of jazz music, and thus cannot be considered western swing.  Personally, I am of the “smells-like-a-rose-no-matter-what-you-call-it” mindset, and it sounds like western swing to me.  At the very least, it should be unanimous that it is a crucial predecessor to the subsequent western swing movement.

On the obverse, the Doughboys play Milton Brown’s adaptation of the Famous Hokum Boys’ (Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Bill Broonzy, and Frank Brasswell) 1930 hokum blues number “Nancy Jane”.

Nancy Jane, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.

And on the reverse, they play Brown’s own composition “Sunbonnet Sue”, which to my ear seems to have drawn some melodic inspiration from the 1930 popular song “Sweet Jennie Lee” (who incidentally received mention in the lyrics alongside some other popular gals from songs of the day).

Sunbonnet Sue, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.

Columbia 14624-D – Blind Willie Johnson – 1929

Against odds stacked against him, the guitar evangelist and musical visionary Blind Willie Johnson rightly secured his place as a gospel music pioneer and veritable legend in the annals of American music.  While he found neither great fame nor fortune during his life, his rousing religious songs and inspired slide guitar have received much admiration from music lovers, and the convoluted details surrounding his life have inspired much interest from researchers (and as such, some of the facts presented herein are of rather tenuous accuracy) in the decades since.

Willie Johnson was born to “Dock” (variously reported in source documents as Willie, Sr., or George) and Mary Johnson in Pendleton, Texas (though other sources have suggested Independence, some one-hundred miles southeast), in January of 1897; his draft card gave a date of the twenty-fifth, while his death certificate proffered the twenty-second.  He spent most of his life from childhood to adulthood in Marlin, Texas.  His mother died when he was four years old, and his father later remarried.  It is widely believed that Johnson became blind around the age of seven, though the cause of his blindness is not definitively known; the most popular story—based upon an account by his alleged widow Angeline—asserts that he was blinded by lye water thrown by his stepmother during a marital dispute with his father (and accounts differ as to whether the lye was meant for Willie or his father).  A perhaps more plausible theory suggests that he became blind from viewing a solar eclipse which would have been visible from Texas on August 30, 1905, through a piece of broken glass.  No matter the unfortunate circumstance, Johnson found religion and thus aspired preach the gospel.  Inspired by fiddling evangelist Blind Madkin Butler, he learned to play guitar in a distinctive style using a steel ring for a slide to accompany his coarse, false bass singing (though he naturally possessed a pleasant singing voice).  He traveled from town-to-town, playing and singing his religious songs on street corners around the Brazos Valley, sometimes sharing the space with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his blues songs.  Around the middle of the 1920s, Johnson met Willie B. Harris, who would soon become his (possibly second) wife and singing partner, and with whom he would have one daughter in 1931.  He made his first recordings on December 3, 1927—one day after fellow Texas gospel blues man Washington Phillips made his own debut—for Columbia, who had set up a temporary recording laboratory in Dallas, Texas, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  His religious songs proved quite successful, some records rivaling the popular Bessie Smith’s blues songs in sales figures.  Ultimately, Johnson had three more sessions in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, producing a total of thirty issued sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company—plus an additional two unreleased masters credited in the company ledgers to “Blind Texas Marlin”, which are speculated to have been pseudonymous recordings of secular material, or which may have simply been a clerical error—before the crush of the Great Depression curtailed their field recording activity and thus ended his recording career.  Sometime in the 1930s, Johnson left his family in Marlin for the Gulf Coast, where he eventually settled in Beaumount, evidently with a woman named Angeline (with whom he may have had relations concurrent to his marriage to Harris), purportedly the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson.  He continued to sing on street corners in the vicinity, and may have appeared on the radio on KTEM in Temple in the early 1940s, according to an anecdote related by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick, and operated a “house of prayer” in Beaumont.  A decade after his recording career had concluded, John A. Lomax expressed interest in Johnson’s music in an interview with another Blind Willie in 1940, but McTell perplexingly informed the ballad hunter that the gospel singer was dead, according to a letter he had received from Johnson’s wife.  His house in Beaumont reportedly burned in the middle 1940s, and Blind Willie Johnson died on September 18, 1945, from a cause reported as malarial fever.

As with so many of history’s truest luminaries, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest fame was achieved posthumously.  Only seven years after his demise, Harry Smith included his 1930 recording of “John the Revelator” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, presenting Johnson’s music to a new generation of folkies.  In 1977, Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was selected among the twenty-seven musical recordings included on the Voyager Golden Record, sending the blind pilgrim’s celestial music to an appropriate venue amongst the stars.

Columbia 14624-D was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 10 and 11, 1929, respectively.  It was not released until October of 1931, making it Johnson’s last issued record.  Reportedly, only 900 copies were pressed, and it is the only of Johnson’s records to be listed in the “Rarest 78s” column of 78 Quarterly, with an estimate of fifteen or fewer copies known to exist (though whether or not it actually is his rarest record is debatable)—this copy, incidentally, appears to match the description of the one which formerly belonged to Mr. Roger Misiewicz.  Blind Willie Johnson sings both sides in his growling false bass voice and eschews his slide in favor of chording the frets with his bare fingers, he is joined by Willie B. Harris on the second side.

On the first side, recorded the former date, Willie sings “Sweeter as the Years Roll By”—an apt title for his final record—a folk interpretation of Lelia Naylor Morris’s 1912 hymn “Sweeter as the Years Go By” (which in fact are the lyrics Johnson sings in the evidently mis-titled song).

Sweeter as the Years Roll By, recorded December 10, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.

On the traditional spiritual “Take Your Stand”, Johnson’s vocals are complimented by the soprano of his wife Willie B. Harris.  The song was also recorded by Elders McIntorsh and Edwards in 1928, and by Charley Patton (under the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley”) as the first part of his “Prayer of Death” in June of 1929.

Take Your Stand, recorded December 11, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.

Columbia 14333-D – Washington Phillips – 1927

While now regarded alongside the nigh-legendary Blind Willie Johnson as a pioneer of the gospel music genre, snuff-dipping jack-leg preacher from Texas Washington Phillips was once largely forgotten and shrouded by mystery and misconceptions.  Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of folklorists and researchers like Michael Corcoran, Phillips may finally begin to receive the appreciation he has so long deserved.

George Washington Phillips was born on January 11, 1880, near Cotton Gin, Texas, a few miles west of Teague in Freestone County—the very same region that produced pioneering blues luminary Blind Lemon Jefferson—one of at least ten children born to Timothy and Nancy Phillips.  As an adult, he worked for a time as a hotel waiter in Mexia, but soon continued in the family trade of farming, working a strip of land very near the place of his birth in rural Simsboro.  On the side, he found his calling as an itinerant preacher and sanctified singer in local churches and any opportune venues.  In stark contrast to the fire-and-brimstone preaching of contemporaries like Blind Willie Johnson and his fellow guitar evangelists, Phillips’s music was delivered with a gentle touch and kind nature.  More remarkably, Phillips eschewed the guitar in favor of accompanying his singing on an ethereal sounding instrument of rather enigmatic origin, previously thought to have been a toy-piano like zither known as a Dolceola (which may be heard on some of Lead Belly’s 1944 Capitol recordings, played by Paul Howard), but now widely believed to have been an instrument of his own invention which he dubbed a “manzarene”, comprised of two modified tabletop zithers (a celestaphone and a phonoharp) played in tandem, with which he was photographed in 1927.  Possibly owing to an association with Lemon Jefferson, when the Columbia Phonograph Company made their first field trip to Dallas, Phillips made the journey eighty miles northward to record his sacred music.  On Friday, December 2, 1927, directly following a session by the Cartwright Brothers’ cowboy singing duo, Washington Phillips became the first African-American musician, and only the second overall, to be recorded at the field trip.  He waxed a total of six sides that day and the following Monday, and subsequently returned the following two Decembers to record a further twelve (two of which are presumed lost).  Though the sudden onset of Depression curtailed Columbia’s field trips south, Phillips was still in Dallas in 1930, lodging at Wade Wilson’s shotgun house near Oak Cliff, though he eventually returned to the country life in Freestone County.  Locally, “Wash” Phillips was as well known for his mule cart from which he peddled farm-fresh produce as he was for his music, and many of his hometown acquaintances were unaware that he had made records.  Census records indicate that he was married at least twice, first to Anna, and then to Susie.  At the age of seventy-four, Washington Phillips died following a fall on the stairs outside the Teague welfare office on September 20, 1954.

Columbia 14333-D was recorded in Dallas, Texas, on December 5, 1927, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  On it, Washington Phillips sings and accompanied himself on “manzarene”.  78 Quarterly estimated “possibly as many as 30 to 40 copies” were extant.

Perhaps Washington Phillips’s best known recording and composition, in “Denomination Blues” he chides various religious sects for their perceived hypocrisy.  Split into two parts, he sings and plays “Part 1” on the first side.

Denomination Blues – Part 1, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

He concluded the number with “Part 2” on the reverse, turning his attention to the different varieties of “so-called Christians.”  Of Phillips’s limited discography, the song proved particularly influential, being later adapted into the gospel song “That’s All” (for which Phillips received no credit, possibly because the song was believed to be of traditional origin), recorded by artists as diverse as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Merle Travis alike, which rather altered the song’s message by deviating from Phillips’s anti-sectarian “you better have Jesus, and that’s all” theme.

Denomination Blues – Part 2, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

Star Talent 770 – Slim Willet – 1950

With his uniquely characteristic songwriting and unparalleled instrumental sound, the renown of Abilene, Texas, disc jockey, television host, music impresario, and honky tonk hero Slim Willet surely deserves to be as big as his own name-belying size—and perhaps it would have been had he gone to Nashville or Hollywood—yet sadly he has been relegated to little more than a footnote in the annals of country music.

Slim Willet pictured on the cover of Cowboy Songs magazine.

Winston Lee Moore was born on December 1, 1919, in Victor, Texas, a tiny, no-longer-existent town a a mile south of “Hogtown”—a big country oil boom-town better known as Desdemona.  As a teenager during the Great Depression, he reportedly spent a short time working in the CCC, before being drummed into Army service during World War II.  Upon his discharge, he settled in Abilene and attended Hardin-Simmons University, earning a journalism degree in 1949 (though in later years, he jokingly claimed to have studied “how to be a hillbilly disc jockey”).  Thereafter, he went to work as a promoter and disc jockey for local radio station KRBC, hosting his own Big State Jamboree.  On the air, he adopted the stage name “Slim Willet”, taking the sobriquet “Slim” ironically—he really was quite the opposite—and borrowing the name “Willet” from the comic strip Out Our Way.  The year of 1950 proved a professionally momentous one for Willet, for it brought his breakout into the recording industry.  In April of that year, his composition “Pinball Millionaire” was recorded by rising country star Hank Locklin for 4 Star Records, placing Willet’s name on a record label for the first time.  Soon after, Willet’s own first recordings as a singer were released on the Dallas-based Star Talent label.  He went on to cut several more discs for Star Talent over the course of the year that followed  and subsequently set up his own studio to produce “Slim Willet Special Releases”, contracting pressing to the California-based 4 Star Records with the option for them to release his records on their own label, but he did not achieve more than local success.

Tides turned for Willet come September of 1951, when he received a letter from a soldier in Korea requesting that he play a song for his sweetheart back in Abilene.  The soldier sent along a message asking his love to stay true and not let stars get in her eyes.  That letter inspired Willet to compose a love song, which he titled “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” and recorded the following February.  The record big shots didn’t like the song at first, calling it “off beat, off meter, off everything,” but agreed to release it as the B-side of a Texas oilfield number called “Hadacol Corners”.  In spite of their predictions, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” became a national hit upon its release, spawning popular covers by Perry Como and Ray Price, among others, and bringing Willet to the national spotlight for a time.  In the wake of “Stars”, Willet continued to record for 4 Star, producing several more popular records in a similar style—as well as one for Decca—and made appearances on the Big D Jamboree on KRLD in Dallas, and the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH in Shreveport.  He set up his own full-fledged record company—initially called Edmoral but later renamed Winston—around 1953, recording local West Texas talent while still contracted to 4 Star, and moved his own recording activities to it once his engagement with them ended around 1954 (though he had made pseudonymous recordings for his own label before that).  As rock ‘n’ roll took off, Willet made several rousing rockabilly records under the pseudonym “Telli W. Mils, The Fat Cat” (i.e. Slim Willet spelled backwards), in a fashion rather resembling—though in fact preceding—that of fellow Texan “The Big Bopper”.  While never able to rekindle the nationwide success of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”, Willet remained a popular personality in Abilene, and continued to record, perform, and disc jockey until his untimely death from a heart attack on July 1, 1966.  Posthumously, Willet has been honored with induction in Country Music Disc Jockey and West Texas Music Halls of Fame.

Star Talent 770 was recorded in the spring of 1950 at the studio of KRBC in Abilene, Texas.  Slim Willet is accompanied by the Brushcutters, featuring Shorty Underwood on fiddle, Earl Montgomery on rhythm guitar, Georgia Underwood on bass, Price Self piano, and unidentified lead guitar and steel guitarists.

The first side he ever recorded, Slim Willet made his big debut with “I’m Going Strong”, a most apt title for more than one reason.

I’m Going Strong, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

On the “B’ side, Willet sings one of his signature numbers in the genre over which he reigned supreme: “I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder” (later re-titled “Tool Pusher on a Rotary Rig”).  With this song, Willet established the first in a string of oilfield songs that would overture his recording and songwriting career, ultimately culminating in his self-produced 1959 LP Texas Oil Patch Songs, on which he re-recorded “Tool Pusher”.

I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

Brunswick 7043 – Ben Norsingle – 1928

Yet another casualty to the march of time, Dallas singer Ben Norsingle cut two records for the Brunswick company in 1928, yet today he resides among the countless practitioners of the early blues now shrouded in obscurity.   What can be gleaned of his life, however, makes for a most interesting story.

Benjamin Norsingle was born in the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, around either 1901 or 1906, the son of Andy and Betty Norsingle.  The details surrounding his early life are lost to time, but by his young adulthood, he was singing in Fort Worth with John Henry Bragg and others.  There, he was discovered by Dallas blues impresario Hattie Burleson, who signed him up with Ella B. Moore’s “Hot Ella Company” vaudeville troupe, performing at the Park Theater.  Burleson also arranged for Norsingle’s sole record date, with Brunswick during their first field trip to Dallas in 1928, resulting in four sides backed by a small jazz band typical for the time and place.  When the Hot Ella Company folded and Ella Moore made for Kansas City in 1930, Norsingle went to Cincinnati to perform with Melvin Shannon.  By the next year he was in Chicago, where he and a young man named John Reed were accused (whether rightfully or wrongfully I do not know) of slaying a butcher named John Martin during a holdup of his shop on August 3, 1931.  Norsingle fled back to Dallas in the aftermath, but was apprehended after a few weeks and confessed to the crime.  Brought back to Chicago, he and his accomplice were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.  Despite a temporary stay of execution from Governor Louis L. Emmerson in December of 1931 for the duo to appeal their case to the Supreme Court, Ben Norsingle was strapped into the electric chair in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, and executed at 12:10 A.M. on January 15, 1932, immediately following Reed.  In his final moments amongst the living, Norsingle’s accomplice John Reed made a final statement attributing his downfall to “bad company,” and adding that the world would be better if “boys would be obedient to their parents.”

Brunswick 7043 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.  He is accompanied by a small band made up mostly of members of Troy Floyd’s Plaza Hotel Orchestra from San Antonio, with Don Albert on trumpet, Allen Vann on piano, John Henry Bragg (or Caffrey Darensbourg) on guitar, and Charlie Dixon on tuba.

Norsingle first sings the low-down “Motherless Blues”, a song which might have been something of a downer if not for his matter-of-fact delivery.  While Norsingle possessed decent vocal faculties, and his accompaniment was top-notch, critics have criticized his nearly utter lack of emotion in the songs he sang.

Motherless Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.

Rather foreshadowing his untimely demise, Norsingle spins a yarn of ill-favor by fate on “Black Cat Blues”.  You may note that both songs bear composer’s credit to Hattie Burleson, who was responsible for both “discovering” Norsingle and bringing him to the attention of the Brunswick company.

Black Cat Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.