About R. Connor Montgomery

R.C. Montgomery is the writer, researcher, and 78 RPM phonograph record collector behind Old Time Blues. Everything found here—for better or worse—is his doing. You may read more about his eccentric proclivities on the site's "About" page.

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.

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.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 – Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee – 1930

Powder River Jack H. Lee, pictured in his book The Stampede.

Over the past decade-and-a-half-or-so, the Senate of the United States has made a tradition of decreeing the fourth Saturday of every July to be the National Day of the American Cowboy.  Across the western states, the holiday is celebrated with festivals and other such customary jubilations; on Old Time Blues, we shall celebrate the occasion in the only way we know how—with appreciation of an old record.

Born Jackson Martin on the first of October, 1874, Jack H. Lee was counted among the eldest of the more authentic tradition of cowboy singers to cut records in the days before Hollywood Autrys and Rogerses took center stage (though the extent of that authenticity has been called into question).  Purportedly after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show around 1893, Jack met his future wife Kitty Miller, a native Illinoisan six years his senior, and the two began a long career singing genuine cowboy songs on vaudeville and in rodeos.  Claiming to hail from Montana, they dubbed themselves Powder River Jack and Pretty Kitty Lee and were performing together at least as early as 1898.  Ultimately, the duo became one of the most popular early cowboy acts, though their recorded legacy leaves little evidence of that success.  The Lees were recorded for the first time in November of 1930, with a session for the RCA Victor Company in Hollywood.  The date produced four titles, all of which were released to limited success as the nation plunged into the Great Depression.  They returned to the studio six years later, waxing two sides for Decca in Chicago, which have never been released.  An additional three recordings were made of Jack performing at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in May of 1938.  Powder River Jack also published several books of cowboy lore and song folios during the 1930s which demonstrated his penchant for misappropriating authorship of traditional cowboy poetry (even going so far as to claim “Red River Valley” as his own).  Jack Lee died in a car accident on February 24, 1946, in Chandler, Arizona; he was survived for nine years by Kitty, and both are interred side-by-side in the City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.  Because of Jack’s tendency to plagiarize, the duo’s merit as cowboy performers has been challenged.  While indeed neither Jack nor Kitty were likely ever working cowhands and much of their backstory was probably fabricated, they did perform and preserve genuine western folk music—even if they wrongfully attributed its origins—and, with that caveat, are no less deserving of recognition than their contemporary early cowboy recording artists.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 was recorded on November 3, 1930, in Hollywood, California.  It was originally released on Victor 23527, of which a total of 2,158 copies were reported sold.  Jack and Kitty both strum their guitars, while the former blows the harmonica on a rack between stanzas.  Jack sings solo vocals on both sides.

“Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail [sic]”, illustrated by Powder River Jack.

Certainly one of the most enticing cowboy songs put to shellac in the 1920s and 1930s and today a standard of the traditional cowboy repertoire, “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail”, was truthfully written by Gail Gardner in 1917, though Lee claimed the credit on the record and otherwise (much to the former’s chagrin).  Legend has it that Gardner and his chums in Prescott, Arizona, once tarred and feathered Powder River Jack for stealing his song.

Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

“Powder River, Let ‘er Buck”, ostensibly actually written by Jack himself, lent its name to one of his publications in the same year he cut the record.

Powder River, Let ‘er Buck, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

Vocalion 02614 – Sonny Scott – 1933

When the Great Depression rolled in, along with it came the blues.  People had been singing the blues since times untold, yes, but the hard times surely gave them something to sing ’em about.  Unfortunately for us today, the Depression also nearly killed the recording industry, so recordings of blues from the early 1930s are rather scarce, deep country blues even more so.  These two 1933 sides by Alabama or Mississippi musician Sonny Scott are among the few, and offer an opportunity to hear the real blues of the Great Depression afflicted South.

Not much is known about the life and times of blues guitarist and singer Sonny Scott.  In the early 1930s, he reportedly resided in Quitman, Mississippi, and he presumably had some ties to neighboring Alabama, as he was an associate of pianist Walter Roland.  Scott’s friend and student Gress Barnett from Quitman related to researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that Sonny’s surname was Scarborough, and that he was also known as “Babe”.  “Scott”, presumably, was a corruption of “Scarborough”, if not his given name.  In the Summer of 1933, Scott traveled with Roland to New York City, where they were recorded by the American Record Corporation.  It has been suggested that Scott and Roland had both arrived in Birmingham only recently when they ventured to New York.  From the seventeenth to the twentieth of July, 1933, Scott cut a total of seventeen released sides, eleven solo and six in duet with Walter Roland.  He also participated in the Jolly Two and Jolly Jivers recordings with Roland and Lucille Bogan, resulting in a further eight sides.  The musical content of these recordings ranged from the deep blues of “Hard Luck Man” to upbeat hokum numbers like “Hungry Man’s Scuffle”.  In those recordings, Scott revealed himself to be a competent guitarist.  While Roland continued to record for some time thereafter, frequently accompanying Bogan, Scott went home, never to record again, fading into total obscurity.  Barnett reported that Sonny Scott had died in Shubuta, Mississippi—where his sister was said to have lived—a short time before World War II.

The two sides of Vocalion 02614 were recorded in New York City on July 20 and 18, 1933, respectively.  It is the last issued of Scott’s recordings.  Sonny Scott accompanies himself on guitar.  In their “Rarest 78s” column, the contributors to 78 Quarterly estimated fewer than ten copies of it to exist, with this particular copy listed as having belonged to the late Mr. Steve LaVere.

First, Scott starts in with a snappy little bit, but segues into singing a song of Great Depression misery, “Red Cross Blues No. 2”.  Scott and Roland must have been particularly proud of this number, for they each recorded separate versions of “Red Cross Blues” and “Red Cross Blues No. 2”, and in later years the song was covered by Lead Belly, who presented it as a draft-dodging song from the First World War.  Scott’s and Roland’s versions of this song reference a particular Red Cross Store on Third Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama.

Red Cross Blues No. 2, recorded July 20, 1933 by Sonny Scott.

He sings an archetypal country blues song on the back, though among the more philosophical ones—”Fire-Wood Man”—with some rather profound lyrics: “Lord, a man come in this world, and he have but a few minutes to stay; lawd his head is full of nonsense, and his feet’s all full of pain.”

Fire-Wood Man, recorded July 18, 1933 by Sonny Scott.