Vocalion 15461 – Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P” – 1926

As Old Time Blues’ parade of long-forgotten Texas recording artists marches ever forward (and backward), we turn our attention to a popular singer who was neither a Texan nor recorded in Texas, but nonetheless made an inextricable contribution to the musical heritage of the state.  Much of the research regarding the Sunflower Girl comes courtesy of Fort Worth’s own illustrious and mononymous Dismuke (of the eponymous Radio Dismuke).

Bessie Coldiron, the Sunflower Girl, in an advertising postcard from KGKO, sister station of WBAP, circa 1939.

Though she was billed as the “Sunflower Girl from Kansas”, Bessie Coldiron was born Bessie Ellen Warrington in Oklahoma on June 4, 1902.  Her father died before she was ten years old, and she grew up in Kansas City with her mother, two brothers, and two sisters.  There, on March 3, 1923, she married Ray Orville Coldiron, a carpenter from Nebraska.  Though residents of Kansas, the Coldirons paid a visit to Fort Worth, Texas, at the end of 1925, during which her singing was noticed by “Hired Hand” Harold Hough (who may have been a relative of hers), announcer at WBAP.  He liked what he heard and invited her to try-out for a spot on the radio, singing songs and accompanying herself on the piano.  Her musical proclivities proved popular with listeners, and thus she began a five month engagement with the Fort Worth radio station as the “Sunflower Girl of WBAP”.  Afterwards, she embarked on a tour of the Majestic-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in the spring and summer of ’26.  Following its conclusion, Bessie returned to Texas and WBAP, but not before she went to the Brunswick-Balke-Collender recording studio in New York City for her first record date.  There she cut four sides on September 16, 1926, and four more one week later, of which all but two were released on the Vocalion label.  She would record again the following June, this time for Columbia in Chicago, cutting four sides in two consecutive days.  All of them were issued this time around, rounding out her scant recording career at five records.  But she continued to enjoy popularity on the radio, appearing sporadically on WBAP and her sister station KGKO until at least the beginning of the 1940s.  It would seem that Coldiron had departed from the station by 1941, as she does not appear in the WBAP-KGKO-WFAA “Family Album” published that year.  In 1930, she was reported as living with her husband in St. Louis, but Bessie and Ray were divorced by 1940, by which time he had already taken a third wife.  Bessie Coldiron died on February 28, 1990, in Hayward, California.  Her ex-husband, incidentally, died in Fort Worth in 1988.

Vocalion 15461 was recorded on September 16, 1926 in New York City.  These sides, from Coldiron’s first session, were originally “test” recordings, but were mastered and released.  Bessie Coldiron accompanies herself on piano on both sides.

First, Bessie sings the utterly wholesome George Olsen creation, “She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl”.

She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl, recorded September 16, 1926 by Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P”.

On the flip-side, she sings a charming rendition of “What’s the Use of Crying?”.  I have a set of lyrics to this song written out by my great-grandmother in the front of a textbook from when she was a school girl in Bryan, Texas; perhaps she’d heard it sung by the Sunflower Girl.

What’s the Use of Crying?, recorded September 16, 1926 by Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P”.

Vocalion 15078 – Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra – 1925

Leading a pioneering jazz band on the West Coast, Texas-born pianist Sonny Clay is often credited with spreading jazz music to Australia by way of an ill-fated 1927 tour.

William Roger Campbell Clay, son of William and Lizzie Clay, was born on May 15, 1899, in the small east Texas town of Chappell Hill.  After spending his early childhood in Houston, the Clays relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, when he was nine years old.  It was in that state where the young “Sonny” began his career in music, learning first to play the drums and xylophone, before graduating to playing piano in early jazz groups of the western desert.  In 1916, he continued westward to California, where he would soon make his name.  In the west, he played with Kid Ory and Reb Spikes, and he encountered Jelly Roll Morton in Tijuana around 1920.  By 1922, he had established his own jazz band in Los Angeles, known originally as the Eccentric Harmony Six.  In 1923, his group made one disc for the West Coast-based Sunset label as the “California Poppies”, and a year later Clay waxed two piano solos for the Triumph label.  It was 1926 however, that brought the Clay his most fruitful recording endeavor in the form of a contract with Vocalion.  Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra cut one record at each of four sessions between that year and 1927, as well as an additional four unissued sides from the last.  In 1928, he embarked with his band, including future Duke Ellington vocalist Ivey Anderson, now billed as “Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea”, for a tour of Australia—perhaps making them the earliest American band to bring jazz to their shores.  Though initially finding great success down under, Clay’s tour ultimately ended with a press scandal alleging that the African-American musicians were hosting wild parties rife with drug-crazed interracial sexual abandon, ultimately resulting in their deportation and a subsequent ban on black musicians entering the country which lasted until 1954.  Back in the United States, Clay organized a new orchestra in Los Angeles, playing at the Vernon Country Club.  In the late 1920s and first years of the 1930s, Clay’s Hartford Ballroom Orchestra waxed several discs for his own “Sonny Clay” vanity label (one of which also appeared on Champion), but as the Great Depression progressed, he eventually dissolved his band to work as a soloist for the remainder of the decade.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Clay enlisted in the United States Army, serving as a musician.  Following the War’s end, he sometimes found employment as a piano tuner and postal worker, but continued to work sporadically as a professional musician, into the 1960s, including one final recording session in 1960.  Sonny Clay died on April 10, 1973, in Los Angeles.

Vocalion 15078 was recorded on July 28, 1925, in Los Angeles, California.  The Plantation Orchestra consists of Ernest Coycault on trumpet, W. B. “Woody” Woodman on trombone, Leonard Davidson on clarinet, Sonny Clay on piano, one Fitzgerald (whose first name is unknown) on banjo, and Willie McDaniel on drums and kazoo.

On the first side, Clay’s boys play “Jambled Blues”, in my sincerest opinion one of the brightest shining examples of mid-1920s West Coast jazz excellence ever recorded.

Jambled Blues, recorded July 28, 1925 by Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra.

On the reverse, they dish out some of the same hot stuff on “Bogloosa Blues”, sharing a composer’s credit with fellow West Coast bandleader Herb Wiedoeft.

Bogloosa Blues, recorded July 28, 1925 by Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra.

Supertone 9741 – Cullen Bros. – 1930

On this Mother’s Day, I take a moment away from Old Time Blues’ usual dedication to long gone musicianers to spend a moment of appreciation for all the beloved mothers of the world, not least my own.

A portrait of motherhood in the roaring twenties.

Though nowadays rather receded from their former stature within popular culture, there once existed nearly an entire genre of “mother songs” dedicated to maternal appreciation, songs like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “You’ll Never Miss Your Mother ‘Till She’s Gone”, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mother, the Queen of My Heart”, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine” to name just two of many.  Hundreds—if not thousands—of songs were published and recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century celebrating the love of a son (or daughter) for his mother.  Indeed, many of them tended a little on the sappy side, but the sentiment behind them, generally, was honest and sincere, and represented a culture which rightfully valued a mother’s love.  The record published herein contains two such songs, originally published in the early decades of the twentieth century, in honor of dear old mother, as sung in duet by the so-called Cullen Brothers (though in fact they were not really brothers and only one was a Cullen).

Supertone 9741 was recorded on May 23, 1930, presumably in Richmond, Indiana.  The “Cullen Brothers” are in fact Billy Cullen and Barney Kleeber.  The instrumentalists on piano, violin, and guitar are unidentified.  The same pairing was also issued on Champion 16045, credited to its true artists, and the “A” side also appeared on Superior 2513, credited to “Ward and Scott”.

Firstly, Cullen and Kleeber sing Arthur Dewey Larkin’s composition “Mother Dear (Do You Hear Me Calling You)”, originally published in 1922.

Mother Dear (Do You Year Me Calling You), recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.

Next, from 1914, they sing H.C. Weasner’s “Just a Dream of Mother” on the “B’ side.

Just a Dream of Mother, recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.

Brunswick 4684 – George E. Lee and his Orchestra – 1929

Standing alongside Bennie Moten’s famous orchestra as one of the finest of the numerous distinguished jazz units active in Kansas City—though lacking the same enduring repute—is George E. Lee and his Novelty Singing (or “Singing Novelty”) Orchestra.

George Ewing Lee was born on April 28, 1896, in Boonville, Missouri, the son of George and Cathrine Lee, and the elder brother of Julia Lee, who would also go on to success as a singer and musician.  Growing up in a musical family, he got his musical start in his father’s string band as a child.  Prior to the first World War, he was employed as a porter, and served during the conflict in the United States Army, during which time he played in a band.  Following his discharge, Lee sang professionally, and organized first iteration of his Novelty Singing Orchestra with his sister Julia in 1920.  Often booked at Kansas City’s Lyric Hall, Lee’s orchestra soon came to rival Bennie Moten’s for the title of Kansas City’s favorite jazz band in “battle of the band” contests.  The Singing Novelty Orchestra recorded for the first time in 1926 or ’27, making two titles for Winston Holmes’ Kansas City-based Merritt label: “Down Home Syncopated Blues” (a re-arrangement of the “Royal Garden Blues”)  and “Merritt Stomp”.  Their next, and final, session came in late in 1929, when the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company brought their equipment to Kansas City.  For Brunswick, Lee’s orchestra cut four sides, and an additional two accompanying Julia Lee’s singing.  Plagued by mediocre management and high member turnover, the Singing Novelty Orchestra disbanded a few years into the Great Depression, and was “raided” by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra in 1933.  Lee nonetheless continued to play with and sometimes lead ensembles of varying size—including one the featured a young Charlie Parker—until retiring from music in 1941.  Relocating to Michigan, he managed a nightclub in Detroit in the 1940s before moving once again to California.  George E. Lee died in San Diego on October 2, 1958.  His sister Julia Lee, who had achieved considerable success with a series of rhythm and blues recordings for Capitol throughout the 1940s, survived him by only two months.

Brunswick 4684 was recorded around November 6, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri.  The Singing Novelty Orchestra consists of George E. Lee directing Sam Utterbach and Harold Knox on trumpets, Jimmy Jones on trombone, Herman Walder on clarinet and alto sax, Clarence Taylor on soprano sax, alto sax, and maybe bass sax, Albert “Bud” Johnson on tenor sax, Jesse Stone on piano, Charles Russo on banjo and guitar, Clint Weaver, on tuba, and Pete Woods on drums.

First, Lee his own self provides the vocals on an outstanding rendition of the timeless “St. James Infirmary”—perhaps one of the finest—capturing the melancholy air of the lyrics which many recordings seem to eschew in favor of hot playing.

St. James Infirmary, recorded c.November 6, 1929 by George E. Lee and his Orchestra.

On the flip, they put forth an exemplary performance of pianist Jesse Stone’s hot instrumental composition “Ruff Scufflin'”.

Ruff Scufflin’, recorded c.November 6, 1929 by George E. Lee and his Orchestra.

CroMart 101 – Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid) – c. 1947

Whoopin’ and hollerin’ fiddler from Bandera, Elmo Newcomer—the “Pipe Creek Kid”—was one of the more colorful figures in Texas folk music (and that’s saying something).

Jessie Elmo Newcomer was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 25, 1896, son of rancher Andrew Jackson “Jack” Newcomer and his wife Lura Bell (née Stokes).  Elmo followed in his father’s footsteps and became a stockman on the family farm Pipe Creek, Texas, about eight miles from Bandera.  He served as a cook in the the Third Trench Mortar Battalion during the First World War, and was honorably discharged on March 30, 1919.  Shortly after his return home, he married Miss Birdee Augusta Ellis, on April 16 of the same year, with whom he would have five children over the subsequent decades.  His uniquely uninhibited style of fiddle playing was recorded in May of 1939 by folklorists John Avery and Ruby Terrill Lomax for the Library of Congress in thirteen performances at his home in Pipe Creek.  Around twenty years later, Newcomer made two records for the San Antonio-based CroMart label, recreating tunes which he had previously recorded for Lomax.  Though well known locally for his music making proclivities, he spent most of his life on the farm, and did not seek fame or fortune as a professional musician.  Tragedy befell the Newcomers with the deaths of sons Clyde from tetanus in 1940 and William in a 1951 car accident, and Elmo and Birdee divorced at some point during the 1940s or 1950s; she later remarried, while he did not.  Elmo Newcomer died from arteriosclerosis at the V.A. Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, on December 8, 1970, and was buried in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.  His descendants have carried on his musical legacy around Pipe Creek.

The recording date of CroMart 101 is not established by any available sources, but I have it on good authority that it dates to around 1947, give or take, and was probably recorded in San Antonio, Texas.  Newcomer is accompanied by guitar, likely played by one of his sons.  Both performances are virtually identical to his Library of Congress recordings of 1939, albeit in much higher fidelity.  The Cro-Mart Recording Company was founded by H.M. Crowe and Buster Martin of San Antonio.

Newcomer first fiddled a wild and crazy rendition of the old-time staple “Cotton Eyed Joe”, an especially popular number with Texas musicians.

Cotton Eyed Joe, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).

He next does the “Old Grey Mare”, with his wild hollers complimented by some choice diction: “Old grey mare come a-footin’ down from Delaware, lookin’ for her underwear; she couldn’t find ’em anywhere.”

Old Grey Mare, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).