Victor 19639 – Connie Boswell/Boswell Sisters – 1925

In 1925, the Boswell Sisters had made quite a name for themselves in their hometown of New Orleans.  Three years prior, they had won a talent contest for WAAB radio, which earned them a three day gig at the Palace Theatre.  They were regularly engaged around town, particularly at functions of the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club, whose promotive director had taken a shine to the Bozzies.  It was a YMGC function where the sisters were noticed by vaudeville headliners Van and Schenck, who were at the time playing at the Orpheum.  They loved the Boswells’ act, and promised to pull some strings in their favor when they returned to New York.  Very soon after that, they cut their first record.  E.T. King of the Victor Talking Machine Company was in town with mobile recording equipment, just in from Houston on the first such “field trip” they ever made (though not the first recording session held in New Orleans).  The Boswell Sisters were the first artists to record for Victor in New Orleans, they cut three sides, “You Can Call Me Baby All the Time”, “I’m Gonna Cry (The Cryin’ Blues)”, and “Pal o’ Mine” on March 22, 1925, followed by “Dad” and “Nights When I Am Lonely” on the 25th.  Only two of those five were issued.  Other artists to record on the historic New Orleans field trip were Tony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys, Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Reportedly the Boswells’ record was mistaken for a “race” record, and as a result kept out of many record stores.  Nonetheless, the sisters were eager to head to Camden and cut a few more, though fate held them in New Orleans until 1928.

Victor 19639 was recorded on March 22 and 25, 1925 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  These recordings were made acoustically, shortly before Victor commenced mainstream electrical recording (though they had made several prior to these).  It is the Boswell Sisters first record, as well as their only record made in the 1920s.

Tragically, this record arrived in my possession broken in three pieces, the result of incompetent packing (one of the worst jobs I’ve ever seen), and can be seen on the “wall of shame” on Old Time Blues’ guide to packing 78s.  I couldn’t allow a record this rare and this great to remain in pieces however, so I set about repairing it.  After warming up by repairing two other broken discs, I carefully lined up the grooves, setting the pieces as tightly together as possible, and superglued the edges and run-out to hold it together.  Fortunately, it tracked, and played with clicks.  After transferring, I painstakingly removed every click the cracks caused, and equalized out the rest of the thumps.  The end result exceeded my every expectation of what this broken record could sound like.  A few slight clicks still remain, but I believe you’ll find that it sounds quite clean, all things considered (seeing as it has the equivalent of four cracks to the label in it).

First, in the style of her idol Mamie Smith, seventeen-year-old Connie belts out “I’m Gonna Cry (Cryin’ Blues)”, accompanied on piano by her sister Martha.  Young Vet joins in later on to help Connie vocally imitate a hot instrumental break.

I'm Gonna Cry (Cryin' Blues)

I’m Gonna Cry (Cryin’ Blues), recorded March 22, 1925 by Connie Boswell.

Next, all the sisters join in on “Nights When I Am Lonely”, which features the Bozzies’ trademark style of scat known as “-ggling” (that’s pronounced “gulling”).  On this side, they are accompanied on piano by Vitaly Lubowski, who had recorded the previous day with Tony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys.

Nights When I Am Lonely

Nights When I Am Lonely, recorded March 25, 1925 by the Boswell Sisters.

Vocalion 03394 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

Look out friends, here’s Leon! Take it away, boys, take it away!

The last thing we heard from ol’ Bob Wills was his famous “New San Antonio Rose” of 1940.  Now, let’s get a little hotter with an early side by the King of Western Swing (and if you ask me, that Spade Cooley never deserved the title).

Following a pair of unissued recordings with his “Wills Fiddle Band” for Vocalion, and a stretch with the Light Crust Doughboys of Burrus Mill, Bob Wills first organized his Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas in 1933.  The next year, they relocated to Oklahoma, where they began a radio program broadcast from Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa.  In September of 1935, Will’s Texas Playboys recorded for the first time in a series of sessions held in Dallas that included “Osage Stomp”, I Ain’t Got Nobody”, and “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as well as four sides with only Wills and guitarist Sleepy Jackon, highlighting his own merits as a fiddler.  They followed up the next September in Chicago, cutting such classics as “Trouble in Mind” and the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Wills built his band around such talents as steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and singer Tommy Duncan, all of whom he helped make famous with his “hollers,” announcing their solo and other quips.  Over the years, Wills developed his Texas Playboys from a fairly small string band into a full-fledged swing orchestra that drew larger crowds than Benny Goodman and both Dorsey brothers’ orchestras.  In the 1940s, the Texas Playboys toured across the states, and eventually settled in California.  Throughout that decade, they made a series of film appearances, and their popularity soared, to the point that they were a national sensation.  During the War, Wills made a number of patriotic records such as “Smoke on the Water” and “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima”.  The popularity of the Texas Playboys continued through the postwar era, and into the early 1950s, when they recorded Wills’ famous “Faded Love”.  As 1950 turned to 1955 however, musical trends shifted, and their popularity began to wane.  Nonetheless, the Texas Playboys continued to perform until 1965.  Wills continued his solo career until a stroke in 1969.  Bob Wills and many of the former Texas Playboys were reunited in 1973 at a tribute concert with Merle Haggard.  After the first day of that concert Wills suffered a stroke that led to his death two years later, in 1975.

Vocalion 03394 was recorded in the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday, September 29 and Wednesday the 30 of 1936, just over a year after their first sessions in Dallas, and their first return to the studio since.  The Texas Playboys are made up of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson—who doubles on guitar—on fiddles, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet and saxophone, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto sax, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.  I don’t know why it is, but these “scroll” label Vocalions tend to be some of the most enticing records out there!  Lots o’ great stuff to be found on ’em.

Leon McAulliffe’s famous “Steel Guitar Rag” was derived from blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag” of the previous decade, which he recorded first in 1923, and again in 1927.  Wills’ Texas Playboys heat up on this side a helluva lot more than Weaver ever did, with a healthy dose of hot jazz injected in it.  Becoming one of the Texas Playboys’ best-sellers, the success of “Steel Guitar Rag” made “take it away, Leon” a household phrase in the Depression era South.  That saxophone solo at around a minute-and-a-half in is just sublime!

Steel Guitar Rag

Steel Guitar Rag, recorded September 29, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Next, cut the following day, the Texas Playboys get low-down with a vocal duet between Wills and Tommy Duncan on “Swing Blues No. 1” (yes, there was a “Swing Blues No. 2”, too).

Swing Blues No. 1

Swing Blues No. 1, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Gennett 6505 – The New Yorkers – 1928

An original “New Electrobeam” record sleeve.

To me, the records made in the 1920s and 1930s on labels like Gennett and Paramount (manufactured by the Starr Piano Company and the Wisconsin Chair Company, respectively) seem to be a part of Americana.  They were distinctively American companies made in America’s heartland, and recorded a large amount of music by and for the American common man.  While today’s record, though indeed a Gennett, is not one of those vernacular types, it is a “New Electrobeam” by an excellent New York dance band.

Gennett 6506 was recorded June 18, 1928 in New York City by the New Yorkers, a Carl Fenton orchestra. The vocal refrains are by Carl Mathieu, who also sang as a member of the Peerless Quartet.

“Carl Fenton” was, however, not a real person.  Fenton began “life” in the early 1920s as a pseudonym for Gus Haenschen, an executive and studio band leader with Brunswick Records, whose name was “ill-suited” for record labels given attitudes toward Germans following World War I (plus, just look at it, it’s like a mess of letters).  This “Carl Fenton” recorded for Brunswick between 1920 and 1927.  In 1927, Reuben Greenberg, who had been a member of the band, bought the name from Haenschen and began using it to lead his own band, which recorded with Gennett and later had a pivotal role with the QRS label made by Cova around 1930.  In 1932, Greenberg legally changed his name to Carl Fenton, thus bringing the fictional bandleader into reality.

The band first plays a very nice syncopated version of “You’re a Real Sweetheart”, strangely credited to “Kahn-Fioritta”, even though the song was actually written by Irving Caesar and Cliff Friend.  Vocalist Carl Mathieu seems to miss his cue a little bit on this side.

You're a Real Sweetheart, recorded 1938 by The New Yorkers.

You’re a Real Sweetheart, recorded June 18, 1928 by The New Yorkers.

On the reverse, they play another great one, the 1928 hit “Dusky Stevedore”, this time correctly credited to Andy Razaf and J.C. Johnson.

Dusky Stevedore, recorded 1928 by The New Yorkers.

Dusky Stevedore, recorded June 18, 1928 by The New Yorkers.

Vocalion 03174 – J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five – 1935

Today’s selections highlights banjo picker J.H. Bragg, who was quite a prolific player in the Texas jazz scene of the 1920s and ’30s, but like many of his contemporaries, has fallen into near total obscurity in the present day.

John Henry Bragg was born in Fort Worth, Texas on August 10, 1898 into a family of musicians.  His father was a medicine show entertainer in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and later taught all of his family to play instruments.  John Bragg learned to play guitar and piano, but later switched to banjo because it could be better heard over a band.  Bragg’s first professional engagement was with the Sadie Smith Jazz Band in Fort Worth around 1918.  He was married to blues singer Ardell “Shelly” Bragg, who recorded several sides for Paramount Records in 1926 and ’27.  In 1927, he went to San Antonio to play in Troy Floyd’s orchestra at the Plaza Hotel (and the Shadowland speakeasy), with whom he remained until the band broke up in the early ’30s.  In his later years, he claimed to have been responsible for introducing Don Albert to Floyd.  In late 1928, Bragg, along with some other members of Floyd’s orchestra, accompanied blues singers Hattie Burleson, Ben Norsingle, Jewell Nelson, and Ollie Ross in a series of sessions held by Brunswick and Columbia in Dallas.  Like his former band mate Don Albert, Bragg formed his own band in the 1930s, his Rhythm Five, though it never found the same notoriety as Albert’s famous swing band.  The Rhythm Five recorded but one session for Vocalion in 1935, which yielded four sides, all of which were issued.  During World War II, Bragg was hired to play at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, and he retired in 1968.  In 1980, he was interviewed by Sterlin Holmesly.  John Henry Bragg died on January 1, 1988, and was presumably buried next to his wife Ardell in San Antonio’s Eastview Cemetery, though no date was ever chiseled into his tombstone.

Vocalion 03174 was recorded on August 28, 1935 in San Antonio, Texas, the only session by Bragg’s Rhythm Five.  In the band are Joe Hathaway on alto sax, Al Freeman on piano, John Henry Bragg on banjo, and Walter Warden on string bass.  Israel Wicks sings the vocals.

First, one of more commonly reissued of the four sides waxed by Bragg’s Rhythm Five, “Frisky Honey” was featured on the CD compilation That Devilin’ Tune – A Jazz History (1895-1950).

Frisky Honey

Frisky Honey, recorded August 28, 1935 by J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five.

In their last side cut at the session, they play an energetic rendition of Cow Cow Davenport’s “Mama Don’t Allow” as “Mama Don’t Like Music”, with their “mama don’t allow no [what have you] played in here” verses allowing for ample solos from each musician.  I can’t find that this side has ever been commercially reissued, though I can’t understand why, it’s a fine tune.

Mama Don't Like Music

Mama Don’t Like Music, recorded August 28, 1935 by J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five.

Oriole 8159 – Joshua White – 1932

In blues and folk music, one figure that stands out among the rest is Josh White, who rose from poverty to become one of the most popular Piedmont blues players of the 1930s, and eventually a major force in the folk music scene of the 1940s.

Joshua Daniel White was born on February 11, 1914 in Greenville, South Carolina, one of four children in a religious family.  When Joshua was a child, his father was beaten severely and later admitted to an asylum after evicting a white bill collector from his home.  Not long after, the young Joshua began acting as a “lead man” for blind musicianer “Big Man” John Henry Arnold, and later for other blind musicians, including Blind Blake, Blind Joe Taggart, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.  While on the road with those accomplished bluesmen, the young White picked up their guitar stylings, and soon became an accomplished player of the instrument.  His talent was recognized in 1928 by Paramount Records’ J. Mayo “Ink” Williams, who hired him to record as a session player, backing up Taggart and white country musicians the Carver Boys.  In the early 1930s, White was tracked down by the American Record Corporation to make records for their budget labels.  His mother allowed him to record for them on the condition that he did not play the “devil’s music”—blues.  White had his first session for the ARC on April 6, 1932, recording both blues and sacred music under his own name and the pseudonym “Pinewood Tom”.  Though only a teenager, White became one of the most popular Piedmont blues musicians of the day, along with Buddy Moss and Blind Boy Fuller.  Early in 1936 however, he was forced to temporarily retire from music after an injury in a bar fight, caused him to lose the use of his left hand.  After a stint as a dock worker and elevator boy, White regained full use of the hand during a card game, and returned to music.  By the 1940s, White’s style had shifted toward folk music, ascending to a status contemporaneous of Lead Belly, and he recorded with the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie with the Almanac Singers, and the Golden Gate Quartet.  He also became an accompanist to torch singer Libby Holman in an unusual pairing.  During those years, White became the closest black friend of the Roosevelts, beginning with their meeting in 1940.  His left-leaning politics gained him trouble with McCarthyism in the late 1940s, harming his career.  Later in life, White was plagued by a worsening painful fingernail condition.  He died of heart failure in 1969.

Oriole 8159 was recorded on April 12, 1932 in New York City by Joshua White, one of his earliest sessions for the ARC.  On both sides, White is accompanied by an unknown piano player.  It was also issued on Perfect 0213 and Banner 32527.

First up, White sings “Lazy Black Snake Blues”, with the eighteen year old singer moaning that “he’s so doggone old.”

Lazy Black Snake Blues

Lazy Black Snake Blues, recorded April 12, 1932 by Joshua White.

On the other side, White sings of woes with his woman on “Downhearted Man Blues”.  A common theme in the blues.

Downhearted Man Blues

Downhearted Man Blues, recorded April 12, 1932 by Johsua White.