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.
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).
Producing many of the earliest “country” music hit records in the wake of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s unexpected success, Texas-born, city-bred Vernon Dalhart has been the subject of some controversy as to his merits and authenticity, but if Jimmie Rodgers be the “father” of country music, and Uncle Dave Macon the grandfather, then surely the polished, classically trained Vernon Dalhart must be some great-uncle.
Vernon Dalhart, pictured in the Victor catalog.
Marion Try Slaughter II was born on April 6, 1883, in the east Texas town of Jefferson, the son of Bob and Mary Jane Slaughter. When he was ten, his father was killed by his uncle in a dispute, and he later moved with his mother to Dallas. In his teenage years, he spent some time as a cowhand in west Texas for a summer job. Aspiring to sing opera, Try studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music, then set out for New York to strike it big. Deeming “Try Slaughter” an unsuitable name for an operatic tenor, he instead adopted the name of two west Texas towns for his stage name: “Vernon Dalhart”. Soon, he began recording professionally for Edison and other record companies, mostly singing popular songs of the day. In the dawning days of “country” music on records, Dalhart got wind of Henry Whitter’s 1923 recording of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97”, and brought the tune to the attention of the Edison company. He recorded the song for Thomas Edison on May 14, 1924, and then set about doing it again for Victor. Victor bigwig Nat Shilkret agreed to record the song on the condition that Dalhart produce a suitable number for the “B” side. He obliged in the form on “The Prisoner’s Song”, adapted from an old folk song he had heard from his cousin Guy Massey. For the session, Dalhart was paired with Victor staff whistler and guitarist Carson Robison and violinist Lou Raderman. Billed on the label as “mountaineer’s songs”, the resulting record sold a reported seven million copies, notwithstanding Dalhart’s remakes on other labels. The runaway success relaunched the singer’s career as a “hillbilly” singer, and, teamed with Robison, he continued to find success singing disaster songs and weepy ballads like “Death of Floyd Collins” until the end of the decade. Following a series of disagreements regarding royalties and Dalhart’s replacement of fiddler Murray Kellner with his friend Adelyne Hood, Robison broke away from the act to strike out on his own. In the decade that followed, Robison’s success grew while Dalhart’s waned. By 1930, his stream of successful songs had gone dry, and he recorded only sporadically through that decade. He made his final recordings in 1939, with a group called the Big Cypress Boys, drawing their name from a bayou back home in Jefferson, Texas. Afterward, he retired from professional performance and began coaching voice in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before going on to a number of non-musical odd jobs until his death from a heart attack on September 14, 1948.
Two different versions of Victor 19427 were made, the first was recorded acoustically on August 13, 1924, which was re-made electrically on March 18 of the following year, both session in New York City. For both versions, Dalhart is accompanied by Carson Robison on guitar, Lou Raderman on violin, and his own harmonica. Both the acoustical and electrical versions are posted herein, in that respective order. In the interest of unnecessarily full disclosure, the media featured in this post is sourced from three different copies of the record, one for the acoustical takes, one for the electrical takes, and one for the labels (as neither of the transferred copies have particularly presentable labels).
On the first side of his big hit record, Dalhart rather joyfully sings of disaster and death on Henry Whitter’s “Wreck of the Old 97”, one of the most popular railroad songs ever made. Regardless of questions of Dalhart’s authenticity as a folk singer, I would posit that these songs are indubitably a part of Americana.
Wreck of the Old 97, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.
Following Dalhart’s introduction, “The Prisoner’s Song” became one of the biggest hits of the 1920s, inspiring numerous covers, dance band arrangements, organ solos, and translations into Spanish, Italian, Polish, and other languages. Dalhart himself recorded the song a number of times, and it remained widely known and recorded into the 1950s. In spite of Dalhart’s copyrighting the song in his cousin’s name, some accounts suggest that the finished product was mostly a result of Nat Shilkret’s re-arrangement, and Shilkret in later years spoke of the song as “the one that guy stole from me.”
The Prisoner’s Song, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.
Some twenty years before Chester Burnett became famous as “Howlin’ Wolf”, another blues musician claimed that title for his own, a Texas guitarist and singer also known as “Funny Paper” Smith, called such after his eponymous “Howling Wolf Blues”, which he recorded in four parts in 1930 and ’31. Regrettably, like so many of his contemporaries, very little is known of the life and times of the original “Howling Wolf”.
Most sources suggest that the blues singer and guitarist known as “Funny Paper Smith” was John T. Smith, as is indicated on the labels of the records he made for the Vocalion company in 1930 and ’31. He is usually said to have been born in East Texas the 1880s or ’90s, and to have died sometime in the 1940s. Indeed, there are some documents to corroborate that a black musician by the name of John Smith existed in Texas during those years, though aside from sharing the most common name around, there is little to connect him to “Funny Paper”. It is also frequently suggested that his “Funny Paper” sobriquet was a mistake on the part of the record company, and that his nickname was properly “Funny Papa”. A good deal of that information seems to derive from the notes of the 1972 Yazoo compilation of some of his material—The Original Howling Wolf—which itself appears to have mostly been derived from an interview with fellow Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw (the same album also erroneously displays an early photograph of the Black Ace purported as Smith, thus staining its claim to accuracy).
Recently released research by the esteemed Mack McCormick—continued by Bob Eagle—has related a compelling argument for a different scenario; they suggest that “John Smith” was merely an assumed name used by the artist to evade trouble back home. In a 1962 interview, McCormick played one of the Smith’s records for Mrs. Alberta Cook White of Smithville, Texas, who identified the singer as her older brother, Otis Cook, whom she claimed was born there in Bastrop County on April 1, 1910. She related that he learned to play guitar as a youth and began rambling around the state of Texas, leaving behind life as a farmer in favor of becoming an itinerant songster, playing at local functions and sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time to visit Waco and Dallas, possibly encountering Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way. He was reportedly known to most of his contemporaries as the “Howling Wolf”, not as “Funny Papa” or “Funny Paper”, and he was described as being a tall, dark-skinned man of about one-hundred-sixty-five pounds (to complicate matters, it was suggested that the “Howling Wolf” name may have been used by more than one musician in Texas around the same time). Census documents suggest he was incarcerated at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, on a charge of attempted arson in the spring of 1930, after which he promptly made for Chicago. There, “Smith” began his career as a recording artist for Vocalion Records, the details surrounding which are considerably more certain than those surrounding his identity.
Dubbed “‘Funny Paper’ Smith (The Howling Wolf)”, he entered the studio for the first time on September 18, 1930, to make two unreleased test recordings for the Vocalion company, “Hobo Blues” and “Old Rounder’s Blues” for the Vocalion company—the latter perhaps a rendition of Lemon Jefferson’s song of the same name. He made his debut in earnest the following day, cutting the first two installments of his eponymous, four-part, “Howling Wolf Blues” and two more sides the day after, all of which were issued this time around. He returned to the studio thrice more before the end of the year to make another five sides. The following year, he had a further five sessions resulting in fifteen more sides. Afterwards, “Funny Paper” evidently went back home to Texas. He resurfaced four years later in Fort Worth to record for Vocalion once again. From the twentieth through the twenty-third of April, 1935, he cut a total of thirty-two sides—including parts five and six of “Howling Wolf Blues”—on some of which he was joined by Moanin’ Bernice Edwards and Black Boy Shine on pianos and vocals and “Little Brother” Willie Lane on guitar. Of all those, only his three sides with Bernice Edwards were released, of which only one—a hot “skiffle” record—bore credit to “Howling Smith”; all others were “found to be faulty,” and never released in any form. In all, his recording activities netted a grand total of fifty-six sides, though only twelve records were issued to his name. In the late 1930s, “Smith” teamed up for a time with “Texas” Alexander before parting ways near the Oklahoma border, at which point Alexander joined with Lowell Fulson. Sometime later, Otis Cook is believed to have settled down with a family back home in Bastrop, where he later died on August 29, 1979. A testament to his reputation in his home state, the “Howling Wolf Blues” later became something of a standard among Texas blues players, with renditions made by his protégé Willie Lane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Tom Shaw.
Melotone M 12117 was recorded on January 19, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois. It was also issued on Polk P9013 and later on Vocalion 02699 in 1934. Dessa Foster and J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith duet and banter on a novelty blues in the manner of those made by Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson for Okeh, while Smith accompanies on guitar. It has been proposed that “Dessa Foster” is a pseudonym for Mississippi Delta blues singer Mattie Delaney (frankly I’m rather dubious, but some compelling evidence has been presented, and there is a compelling aural similarity).
On the first part of the comic duet “Tell it to the Judge—No. 1”, Howling Smith plays the part of a police officer, barging into Miss Foster’s house with the question: “where that booze at?”
Tell it to the Judge—No. 1, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.
Opening with a fine bit of guitar reminiscent of his work on “Honey Blues”, recorded the following month, Smith assumes the role of the titular judge on “Tell it to the Judge—No. 2”, and he’s not giving any more breaks to “Betty”.
Tell it to the Judge—No. 2, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.
Although not nearly as widely remembered as his sometime associate Bob Wills, Big Spring bandleader Hoyle Nix made his own indelible mark on western swing, cementing his name in the pantheon of Texas fiddlers.
William Hoyle Nix was born in Azle, Texas, just a little ways northwest of Fort Worth, on March 22, 1918, son of Jonah Lafayette and Myrtle May Nix. When he was still a baby, the Nixes moved out west to a farm in Big Spring, Texas, where Hoyle and his brothers were reared. His father played fiddle and mother played guitar, and passed their skills on the instruments down to Hoyle and his brother Ben. Inspired by his musical hero Bob Wills, Hoyle and Ben Nix formed the West Texas Cowboys in 1946, who soon established themselves as a hit in West Texas dance halls. In the summer of 1949, Nix brought the band to Dallas to cut their first records for the recently established Talent label, debuting with his own “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, which proved to be a hit and became one of the genre’s most popular standards. Subsequently, Nix’s West Texas Cowboys began touring with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and Nix’s band expanded to include several former Playboys, including guitarist Eldon Shamblin. In 1954, Hoyle and Ben established the “Stampede” dance hall outside of their hometown of Big Spring, which still stands in operation to the present day. Meanwhile, the West Texas Cowboys continued to record somewhat prolifically on local Texas-based labels throughout the 1950s and ’60s, mostly using the new 45 RPM format. After the dissolution of the Texas Playboys, Bob Wills made regular appearances with Nix’s band. He made his last recordings in 1977 with the release of an LP on the Midland-based Oil Patch label. The following decade saw his induction into no fewer than four halls of fame, including (posthumously) the Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991. Hoyle Nix died on August 21, 1985, in his hometown of Big Spring. His legacy was carried on into the next century by his sons Larry and Jody.
Talent 709 was recorded at the Sellers Company Studio at 2102 Jackson Street in Dallas, Texas, around August of 1949. The West Texas Cowboys are Hoyle Nix on fiddle, Tommy Harvell on steel guitar, Wayne Walker on lead guitar, Ben Nix on rhythm guitar, Charlie Smith on banjo, Loran Warren on piano, and John Minnick on string bass. It is Nix and the West Texas Cowboys’ first record.
Hoyle sings the vocal on the famous Texas swing anthem “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, covered by Bob Wills and others—and it’s a hot number, too. While Nix gets credit for creating the song, it may actually be traced back a ways earlier to “Big Ball in Town” (Brooklyn, Boston, or some such Yankee town), which was recorded by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers in 1928. You may note that it is “a big ball is in Cowtown,” and not—as some listeners understand it—”Big Balls is in Cowtown”; it’s not that kind of a song.
A Big Ball’s in Cowtown, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.
On the flip—actually the “A” side—brother Ben Nix sings the vocals in a more sentimental mood on “I’m All Alone”, an original composition of his own, with Hoyle backing up with some Willsian hollers.
I’m All Alone, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.