Gold Star 1314/1313-A – Harry Choates and his Fiddle – 1946

In Old Time Blues’ ever-continuing tradition of honoring Texas musicians, the time has come to play our respects to “l’Parrain de la Musique Cajun”—Harry Choates—whose 1946 hit of “Jole Blon” put Cajun music on the charts.

Harry Henry Choates was born on December 26, 1922 somewhere in the southern part of Louisiana, i.e. Cajun country.  Different sources suggest Rayne, New Iberia, and Cow Island.  He moved with his family to Port Arthur, Texas as a child, and spent most of his childhood glued to the jukebox.  Choates took up the fiddle by the age of twelve and began busking around town, also learning to play guitar, steel guitar, and accordion.  Playing alongside such notables as Leo Soileau and Happy Fats’ Rayne-Bo Ramblers while only still a youth, Choates was soon to find great success of his own.  In the mid-1940s, he organized a band of his own—the Melody Boys—and began recording professionally for the Houston-based Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Records (“King of the Hillbillies”), then later for Charles D. and Macy Henry’s Macy’s Recordings (“Queen of Hits”), as well as a few other labels.  They also played around south Texas.  Choates’ Gold Star recording of “Jole Blon” (read all about that below) became a smash hit, and won him his greatest fame.  Unfortunately, that fame was to be short-lived for Choates; he was an alcoholic, and frequently showed up at gigs drunk.  His habitual unreliability got him blacklisted by the local musicians’ union, after which his band broke up.  After moving to Austin in the early 1950s, Choates was jailed for failing to make child support payments to his estranged wife Helen.  While imprisoned and experiencing withdrawals from liquor, he knocked himself unconscious on the cell bars.  After a few days spent comatose, Harry Choates died on July 17, 1951, the official cause listed as “fatty metamorphosis of the liver.”

Gold Star 1314 and 1313-A were recorded at the Quinn Recording Co. at 3104 Telephone Road, Houston, TX, on or around March 31, 1946 for “1314” and around June of 1946 for “1313”  (in spite of the numbering, “1314” was apparently recorded earlier). It was soon after issued on Modern Records number 20-511 out of Los Angeles, and DeLuxe 6000.  Some copies of the Gold Star issue misspelled Choates as “Shoates” while the Modern misspelled it “Coates”.  Per Praguefrank’s online discography, Harry Choates’ Melody Boys (though not credited as such on the label) consist of Choates on fiddle and vocals, Esmond Pursley and B.D.Williams on guitar, Charles Stagle on banjo, James Foster on string bass, and William Slay on piano for the the “1314” side.  On the “1313” side, Abe Manuel plays rhythm guitar while Williams takes the bass, and Joe Manuel plays banjo.

“Jolie Blonde”—French for “Pretty Blonde”—was for many years a popular tune in Cajun country, first recorded in 1929 by the Breaux Frères.  In 1946, Harry Choates took his Melody Boys to Bill Quinn’s recording studio in Houston, making the song their first recording, which Quinn misspelled as “Jole Blon”.  The record was released in the summer of ’46 and became an unexpected runaway hit, rising to number four in the Billboard charts, becoming the only Cajun record to reach that position.  Gold Star couldn’t keep up with the demand, and had to lease masters to other record companies.  Numerous follow-ups and sequels were spawned by the success, by Choates—including an English version, “Jole Brun (Pretty Brunette)”, “Mari Jole Blon (Jole Blon’s Husband)”, and “Jole Blon’s Farewell”—and by others, such as Moon Mullican’s “New Pretty Blonde (New Jole Blon)” and “Jole Blon’s Sister”, Bob Wills’ “Jolie Blond Likes the Boogie” (itself sort of a sequel to his “Ida Red Likes the Boogie” of the previous year), Wayne Raney’s “Jole Blon’s Ghost”, and others.  Unfortunately, Choates, a chronic alcoholic, sold his rights to royalties for a hundred dollars and a bottle of whiskey.

Jole Blon, recorded March 31, 1946 by Harry Choates and his Fiddle.

On the other side, “Basile Waltz”, also sung in Cajun, is a lowdown minor key tune that takes you right down into the bayou.

Basile Waltz, recorded June 1946 by Harry Choates and his Fiddle.

Decca 7815 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1940

Though he wasn’t the most talented instrumentalist, nor the most able vocalist, the popular blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw—the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the High Sheriff from Hell—achieved great success in his time, and made a considerable impact on fellow musicians for years to come.

Contrary to the events presented in the 1977 film Petey Wheatstraw, Peetie Wheatstraw was not born as a walking, talking child.  Rather, he was born as William Bunch on December 21, 1902, likely in Ripley, Tennessee or Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  He learned to play the piano and guitar and in 1929 took up residence in East St. Louis, assuming the moniker “Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law”.  Some have suggested the “Peetie Wheatstraw” name traces its roots back to early Afro-American folklore, yet others suggest that Bunch himself was the originator.  Brought to the studio by bluesman and talent scout Charley Jordan, Wheatstraw made his first record for Vocalion in 1930—”Tennessee Peaches Blues”, assisted by an unidentified fellow by the name of “Neckbones” (possibly J.D. “Jelly Jaw” Short)—and he continued to record for them until 1936, with a handful of recordings made for Victor in 1931 on the side.  While still featured on Vocalion, Wheatstraw began recording for Decca in 1934, soon switching to that label exclusively.  Peetie Wheatstraw died in a car accident on his thirty-ninth birthday—he was sitting in the back seat of a Buick driven by a friend, when it struck a standing freight train, killing all passengers—less than one full month after recorded the prophetic seeming “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”.

With an idiosyncratic and formulaic style of singing and playing piano, Peetie Wheatstraw maintained a position as one of the top-selling and most prolific blues artists throughout the decade of the 1930s, alongside Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill, and Bumble Bee Slim.  Influences of Wheatstraw’s signature piano style, mumbled vocals, and “hoo-well-well” holler could be heard in the music of many less successful blues artists across the land, such as Alabama’s Peanut, the Kidnapper (whose stage name is one of the few to rival “Peetie Wheatstraw”).  A testament to his success, fellow blues musician Robert Nighthawk was billed by Decca for a time as “Peetie’s Boy”.  Even noted Texas bluesman Andrew “Smokey” Hogg started out veritably copying Wheatstraw’s vocals and guitar playing, and was known as “Little Peetie Wheatstraw”.

Decca 7815 was recorded on April 4, 1940 and August 28, 1940 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw is accompanied by Jonah Jones on trumpet, possibly Lil Armstrong on piano, and Sid Catlett on drums (which may account for why it sounds different than almost all of  Peetie’s other songs, on which he accompanied himself on piano).

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more noted recordings, the swing infused “Gangster’s Blues”.  The noted accompanists account for the reason why these two songs don’t sound just like most every other song Wheatstraw recorded.

Gangster’s Blues, recorded April 4, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Next, Wheatstraw sings “Look Out for Yourself”, one of countless blues songs echoing the melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”.

Look Out for Yourself, recorded August 28, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Paramount 12608 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1928

The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel.  Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax.  His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley).  Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.

Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery.  He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he reportedly claimed a date of October 26, 1894.  July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier.  He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens.  As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas.  Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas.  He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison.  He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band.  Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).

As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929.  Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later).  Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station.  More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia.  His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis.  In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery).  His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white.  Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ.  Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous.  Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”

The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death.  Kept clean at the time, as it were.

Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois by Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t.  It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1927.

Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”.  This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs.  A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”.  That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here.  In 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.  Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original.

See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one.  The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue.  ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”

‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Columbia 2586-D – Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra – 1931

So the time again come again to pay tribute to one of the forefathers of swing music and leader of one of the finest jazz orchestras of the 1920s and ’30s, the incomparable Fletcher Henderson.

Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., was born on December 18, 1897 into a middle class family in Cuthbert, Georgia in a home built by his father.  Like so many, Fletcher learned to play piano as a boy, along with his brother Horace, who also went on to become a noted jazz musician and bandleader.  Henderson graduated from Atlanta University in 1920 with a bachelor’s in chemistry and mathematics, and thereafter moved to New York City with intention to attend Columbia University.  He got sidetracked soon after arriving however, and instead made his entry into the world of Harlem’s jazz music; while lodging with a riverboat musician, Fletcher filled in for him from time to time.  He soon began working as a song plugger for W.C. Handy, which led his getting his big break in 1921.  When publisher Harry Pace broke with Handy to form Black Swan Records, he made Henderson the musical director for the fledgling “race” label.  At Black Swan, Henderson led his first orchestra, and he continued to lead after the company folded in 1923.  Henderson began to record prolifically on most every record label in existence, both as a bandleader and as an accompanist to early blues singers.  In its heyday, his band often included jazz luminaries such as Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, and, for a stretch in 1924 and ’25, Louis Armstrong.  A car accident in August of 1928 left Henderson with a few broken bones, and by some accounts a depression that caused his work to decline in quality.  Nonetheless, his orchestra continued to perform and record for another decade.  In 1931, his became the house band of Connie’s Inn, a prominent Harlem nightclub comparable to the famed Cotton Club.  As the swing era began to swing later in that decade, rising star Benny Goodman began purchasing arrangements from Henderson for his own orchestra to play; Goodman’s legendary rendition of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter” is practically a recreation of Henderson’s recordings of the same from 1928, ’32, and ’33.  He continued to lead his own band as well until 1939, at which point he disbanded his group to join Goodman’s as a staff arranger, but re-formed an orchestra and recorded sporadically throughout the 1940s.  A stroke in 1950 left Henderson partially paralyzed, and he retired from music.  Fletcher Henderson died two years later on December 29, 1950.

Columbia 2586-D was recorded on December 2, 1931 in New York City.  The orchestra consists of Russell Smith, Rex Stewart, and Bobby Stark on trumpets, Jimmy Harrison and Claude Jones on trombone, Benny Carter on clarinet and alto sax, Harvey Boone on alto sax, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, Fletcher Henderson on piano, Clarence Holiday (that’s Billie’s father) on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass and tuba, and Walter Johnson on drums.

First up, Henderson’s orchestra plays what is in a constant struggle with “Copenhagen” for the title of my favorite of their tunes, Smack’s jazzed up fox trot arrangement of the old Paul Dresser waltz “My Gal Sal”.

My Gal Sal

My Gal Sal, recorded December 2, 1931 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play “My Pretty Girl” in a similar manner as Jean Goldkette’s rendition of four years prior, with a vocal by Lois Deppe.

My Pretty Girl

My Pretty Girl, recorded December 2, 1931 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.

Bluebird B-5403 – Delmore Brothers/Allen Brothers – 1933/1930

The Delmore Brothers, Rabon and Alton, as pictured on a WLS Grand Ole Opry publication, circa 1935.

Now what we have here is a good old-fashioned split release; one artist on one side, a different one on the other.  Not just any old split release though, these two sides happen to contain a couple of the hottest hillbilly performances of the Depression years.  Two of my own personal favorites at least.

Bluebird B-5403 was recorded on December 6, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois, and November 22, 1930 in Memphis, Tennessee, respectively, and was released on April 4, 1934.  The two sides also appeared together on Montgomery Ward M-4750.  The Delmore Brothers are Alton on guitar and Rabon on tenor guitar, vocals by both; the Allen Brothers are Austin on tenor banjo and vocals and Lee on guitar and kazoo.

The Delmore Brothers were born into a family of poor farmers in Elkmont, Alabama—first Alton on Christmas Day in 1908, then Rabon on December 3, 1916.  Their mother Mollie wrote and sang church songs, and soon Alton joined, publishing his first song with his mother in 1925.  They started out their musical career singing at local fiddle contests, and cut their first record for Columbia on October 28, 1931 in Atlanta.  Two years later, they secured a contract with RCA Victor’s Bluebird records, and spot on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.  They found their greatest success as Opry members, playing alongside Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Uncle Dave Macon, and remained on the show until a dispute in 1939.  After parting ways, they continued to   The Delmores switched to the King label in 1944, shortly after the label’s inception, with whom they had some of their greatest record successes, including “Freight Train Boogie” in 1946 with harmonica player Wayne Raney, and “Blues Stay Away from Me” in 1949.  The Delmore Brothers’ career ended with Rabon’s early death from lung cancer on December 4, 1952.  Alton lived on for twelve more years, dying of a heart attack on June 8, 1964.

First up, from their first Bluebird session, Alton and Rabon Delmore sing and play up a real masterpiece on their spectacular and widely imitated hit composition “Brown’s Ferry Blues”, one of twelve sides recorded that day.  The Delmores followed up two years later with “Brown’s Ferry Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3” two years after that, and re-recorded the popular tune all the way in 1946 for King Records.

Brown’s Ferry Blues, recorded December 6, 1933 by the Delmore Brothers.

Not to be confused with the Australian duo of the late 1960s, the Allen Brothers—Austin, born February 7, 1901, and Lee, born June 1, 1906—originated from Sewanee, Tennessee, and got their start in music playing in medicine shows and coal mining towns.  Sometimes called the “Chattabooga Boys” for their frequent references to the Tennessee town, the duo made their first records for Columbia in April of 1927, and followed up with two further sessions for them until one of their records was mistakenly issued in their 14000-D “race” series rather than the 15000-D “Old Familiar Tunes” series, which seems to have offended the pair, because they threatened to bring a lawsuit against Columbia Records.  Instead, they switched to Victor for the vast bulk of their recorded output between 1928 and ’32.  They concluded their recording career with a series of sessions for Vocalion in October of 1934 (little did they know, apparently, that around that same time, Vocalion was under the same parent company as their forsaken Columbia).  After that, the vice grip of the Great Depression forced them to end their musical careers, and seek employment in the construction game.  Austin died on January 5, 1959, while Lee survived into the folk revival of the 1960s, when he was persuaded to perform once again, before his own death on February 24, 1981.

Here, the Chattanooga boys, Austin and Lee Allen sing their second take on this old folk ditty with “A New Salty Dog”.  This one was originally issued in Victor’s “Old Familiar Tunes” series, number 23514, in 1931.  Their old “Salty Dog” was recorded for Columbia in 1927; in my opinion, the “new” one’s better.

A New Salty Dog, recorded November 22, 1930 by the Allen Brothers.