Ernest Tubb reading fan mail in the early 1940s. Pictured in Ernest Tubb Radio Song Book No. 1.
Old Time Blues and I extend our warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas to all of our valued readers!
I always try to put up a suitable selection for the holiday, though in some past years, I’ve let it fall by the wayside in the chaos of the season. But not this time. In celebration of this year’s yuletide, I present an Ernest Tubb bookend to an Ernest Tubb year—the third of his records posted in 2019, the first year during which any of his records have entered the Old Time Blues spotlight. This record holds a special significance to me, for it is one of several in my possession which originally belonged to my great-grandmother, who was in fact a first cousin to Ernest Tubb, though I’m not sure that she knew it. On it, the Texas Troubadour croons two colors of Christmas, in performances of the holiday classics “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas”.
Decca 46186 was recorded on August 26, 1949, at the Castle Studio in the Tulane Hotel at 206 8th Avenue North in Nashville, Tennessee, and was produced by Paul Cohen; the two sides account for the entirety of Tubb’s session that day. Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours are Tommy “Butterball” Paige on lead electric guitar, Jack Shook and Tubb himself on guitars, Jack Drake on string bass, and Owen Bradley on the organ. There sounds to be a steel guitar present, but I’m not sure who’s playing it. Backup vocals are provided by the Three Troubadettes: Anita Kerr, Alcyone Bate Beasley, and Dottie Dillard.
On the first side, E.T. sings us a heartfelt rendition of Irving Berlin’s famous “White Christmas”, though, growing up in Texas, a white Christmas would surely not be “like the ones he used to know.” Tubb recorded an earlier take of “White Christmas” with his full band two years prior, but it was never released and is reported as “lost”. Move it on over, Bing Crosby!
White Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.
While the Christmastime staple “Blue Christmas” is most commonly associated with Elvis Presley, who recorded it in 1957, and the first recording was made in 1948 by Doye O’Dell, I consider Ernest’s rendition to be the definitive.
Blue Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.
The Tune Wranglers, as pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog. Standing, left-to-right: Eddie Duncan, Bill Dickey, Eddie Whitley; seated: Tom Dickey, Buster Coward.
Pioneering, barnstorming cowboy string band from San Antonio, Texas, the Tune Wranglers made a name for themselves both for their rollicking and raucous music and as one of the earliest bands to play in the style that would later be known as western swing.
Much like their contemporaries Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the Tune Wranglers began with a partnership between a guitarist and a fiddler: respectively Edwin Portavent “Buster” Coward, born December 11, 1903, in Chesterville, Texas, and Thomas Ephraim “Tom” Dickey, born November 29, 1899, in Markham, Texas. Dickey learned fiddle as a child, and got his professional start on Mexican border radio in 1929. Coward too started music young, playing guitar, and also served as the most frequent vocalist and de facto bandleader as the group’s most prominent and constant member. The duo organized the first incarnation of the band in 1935 and began touring all across the region and making appearances on radio stations WOAI and KTSA in San Antonio, Texas. They added to their ranks hot shot tenor banjoist Joe Barnes (a.k.a. “Red Brown”), pianist Eddie Whitley, and upright bassist J. Harrell “Curley” Williams. They made their recording debut before long, on an RCA Victor field trip to San Antonio on the twenty-seventh-and-eighth of February, 1936. In seven sessions from 1936 to 1938, they recorded a series of seventy-nine sides for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, all made in San Antonio. Their widely variegated repertoire consisted of popular songs like “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” (many of which had their title altered, likely in a royalty dodge by producer Eli Oberstein, who did the same to recordings by fellow San Antonians Boots and his Buddies), old cowboy ballads like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, blues like “Red’s Tight Like That”, jazz like “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, Mexican numbers like “Rancho Grande”, and original compositions such as “Texas Sand”. Some of their instrumental recordings were released under the name “Tono Hombres” for the Mexican market. They added steel guitar before their third record date, played by the prolific Eddie Duncan, and a number of other musicians sometimes sat in or replaced others, including pianist George Timberlake, and banjoist Eddie Fielding. Most every member took a turn singing at one point or another. Tom Dickey parted ways with the band in 1937 to lead another band called the Show Boys, with whom he recorded for Bluebird in 1938; he later made further recordings for the Folkraft label in the latter part of the 1940s, still operating out of San Antonio. His position in the Tune Wranglers was filled by first by Ben McKay and later by Leonard Seago. By 1938, the band included a reed section consisting of twins Neal and Beal Ruff, the former of whom also doubled on tenor banjo. The Wranglers moved to Fort Worth in 1939 to begin appearing on KFJZ, but disbanded soon after around 1940. Tom Dickey later operated a cafe in San Antonio, and died in that city on August 24, 1954. Buster Coward later worked as a flying instructor and died from a coronary at his home near Boerne, Texas, on April 28, 1975.
Bluebird B-6513 was recorded on February 28, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas. It was released on August 26 of the same year and remained in “print” for decades to come. This pressing dates to the mid-1940s. It was also issued on Montgomery Ward M-4766; “Texas Sand” was reissued on RCA Victor 20-2070 around 1946, backed with their other big hit: “Hawaiian Honeymoon”. The Tune Wranglers are Buster Coward singing and on guitar, Tom Dickey on fiddle, Red Brown on tenor banjo, Curley Williams on string bass, and Eddie Whitley on piano.
Penned by guitarist and vocalist Buster Coward, “Texas Sand” became something of a standard in Texas country music, and was later covered by Webb Pierce in one of his earliest recording sessions.
Texas Sand, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.
As marvelous as the first side is, I do believe the Wranglers managed to really outdo themselves on the “B” side with their tour de force performance of “Lonesome Blues”, also featuring Buster Coward’s strong vocal talent and hot performances by every member of the band.
Lonesome Blues, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.
Though once a widely known and popular personality on radio stations around St. Louis, with a brief recording career that produced only eight discs, cowboy singer Roy Shaffer since drifted into near total obscurity; in fact, the article hereafter appears to be the only substantial biography of him ever published.
Roy Shaffer and Gang appearing on KWK, St. Louis. Roy pictured third from left. Circa 1940s.
Roy was born Jesse Lee Shaffer on December 6, 1906, one of several children of Luther and Anna Shaffer of Mathiston, Mississippi. After growing up on the farm, he left home to pursue the life of a singing cowboy. According to one account, he got his start in the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and made his debut appearance on the radio in 1926. By the middle of the 1930s, he was living in New Orleans and appearing on WWL, billed as the “Lone Star Cowboy” (making him one of quite a few, including native Texan Leon Chappelear, to adopt that sobriquet), an engagement which purportedly brought him as many as 7,462 fan letters in one day. He also reportedly claimed, at various times, the pseudonyms of the “Rambling Yodeler” ,”Tennessee Kid”, “Mississippi Tadpole”, “Louisiana Bullfrog”, and “Reckless Red”. During that stint, M.M. Cole of Chicago published a book of his songs, and he made his first phonograph records, cutting four sides for Decca in their field trip to New Orleans in 1936. Also around that time, he married Cajun girl Edith Falcon, who would later join in in the act, billed as “Eddie Shaffer”. He returned to the studio once more in 1939 to record a further twelve songs, this time for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, in Chicago. These included a rendition of the classic cowboy song “Bury Me Out on the Prairie”, the popular “Great Speckled Bird”, and covers Chris Bouchillon’s “Talking Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues”. Those two sessions accounted for the entirety of Shaffer’s known commercial recording work, but his greatest success was evidently found on the radio; in 1939, Rural Radio magazine reported that Shaffer had appeared on fifty-nine radio stations, “both the smallest and the largest,” though he was reported as “off-the-air” and living in Istrouma, Louisiana, in 1938. By 1940, he was in St. Louis, where he remained for the majority of his career, and employed by the Carson-Union-May-Stern furniture store to appear on their radio programs on several different local stations. He made appearances on WEW from 1939 into ’41 with his “Hillbillies”, after which he began appearing on KWK with his “Gang”, a gig he still held in the middle-to-late part of the decade; he was also on KSD in 1942 with his “Missouri Ramblers”. By the early 1950s, he was on KWRE in Warrenton, Missouri. He also made off-air appearances, attending and participating in rodeos and giving live programs for his fans, often at events put on by Carson’s Furniture Store. In the 1950s, he owned and operated a “hillbilly park” in Mexico, Missouri. He was still active on the radio in St. Louis as late as 1956. Roy Shaffer died in March of 1974 in Greenville, Mississippi, at the age of sixty-eight. Several of Shaffer’s recordings were later reissued on BMG’s East Virginia Blues: The Secret History of Rock and Roll and JSP Records’ Classic Field Recordings: Landmark Country Sessions from a Lost Era, but those have done little to rise the artist up and out from the depths of obscurity.
Montgomery Ward M-8493 was recorded on June 26, 1939, at RCA Victor’s Studio C in Chicago, Illinois by Roy Shaffer, singing with guitar. It was also released on Bluebird B-8234.
In his casual delivery of Chris Bouchillon’s seminal “Talking Blues”, Shaffer oozes southern charm like hot butter through sourdough toast. “If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you how to do it; just grease yourself in a little mutton suet…”
Talking Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.
Flip the record over and he gets low-down on his arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic Texas folk blues standard “The Match Box Blues”—one of my personal favorites.
The Match Box Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.
Roy Rogers and Trigger, pictured on a circa 1940s arcade card.
Most of the attention dedicated to cowboys here on Old Time Blues is directed toward the early, more authentic folk singers rather than the singing cowboys of movie fame. Indeed, I tend to prefer the gritty old cowpunchers with clothes all plastered o’er with dough over the idealized movie star cowboys, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a splendid piece of old Hollywood charm—and this disc by the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, epitomizes that description (although frankly, I tend to favor Gene Autry).
The man who would become Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, to a family of modest means in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Slyes moved to a farm in nearby Duck Run when Len was seven-years-old, while his father also worked in a shoe factory in Portsmouth, twelve miles away. On the farm, he learned horseback riding, and played mandolin for local square dances. On the eve of the Great Depression, the Slyes packed their bags and left for sunny California. After working a variety of jobs there, Slye began to seek work singing, yodeling, and playing music professionally. He sang on the radio with several groups like the Rocky Mountaineers and O-Bar-O Cowboys, with whom he toured the southwestern states. After the dissolution of the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Slye joined with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer—both of whom he had worked with previously—to form the vocal and instrumental Pioneer Trio, which, with the addition of Hugh Farr, evolved into the Sons of the Pioneers by the time of their recording debut in 1934. The Sons quickly established themselves on the musical scene with the success of Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, which became an enduring standard of the cowboy genre. As a California-based cowboy group, the Sons of the Pioneers soon began making regular appearances in western pictures, beginning with Slightly Static in 1935, and before long, Slye was making regular appearances on screen. His big break came in 1938, when cowboy star Gene Autry held out for a bigger paycheck for his starring role in Under Western Stars; instead, Republic Pictures replaced him with the guitarist from the Sons of the Pioneers, changing his name from Len Slye to the more Hollywood-suitable Roy Rogers. Eventually, Rogers came to rival, or perhaps even surpass, Autry in popularity, gaining the honorific “King of the Cowboys”. The 1942 picture Man From Cheyenne introduced Rogers’ trusty palomino steed Trigger, who remained with Rogers until his death in 1965. On New Years’ Eve of 1947, a year following the death of his wife Arline, Roger married Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, who became the “Queen of the Cowboys” to his “King”; the two remained married until his death. Much like Autry, Rogers enjoyed success across a variety of media, including radio and comic books, in addition to his movies and records. As television came to supplant radio as America’s chief form of entertainment in the home, Rogers and Evans starred in a program from 1951 until ’57, and again in 1962. Rogers made his last film appearance in 1975’s Mackintosh and T.J., and his final television appearances in the following decade. After enjoying fame in seven decades of the twentieth century, Roy Rogers died from congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.
Vocalion 04050 was recorded on March 30, 1938 in Los Angeles, California. Roy Rogers’s singing is accompanied by an unidentified cowboy orchestra—made up of fiddle, steel guitar, organ, accordion, guitar, and string bass—and vocal group.
All the Hollywood theatrics were brought in for the melodramatic “Dust Over the West”—composed by none other than Johnny Marvin—which was nominated for the 1938 Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” from The Big Broadcast of 1938. Nevertheless, the song made enough of a hit that Brunswick also dedicated a special picture label to Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers’ dance band version. Gene Autry cut a much less theatrical version of the song in 1937—the year before it was published in connection with Under Western Stars—with his own name added beside Marvin’s to the songwriter’s credit.
Dust Over the West, recorded March 28, 1938 by Roy Rogers.
A much more lighthearted number than the previous—though by no means no less theatrical—Rogers follows with “When a Cowboy Sings a Song”, which could practically be an anthem for Roy Rogers career, though it made far less of a success than “Dust”.
When a Cowboy Sings a Song, recorded March 28, 1938 by Roy Rogers.
While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.
Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas. The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas). She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.” Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ. On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus. Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state. Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915. There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace. Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”. She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company. That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal. Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut. She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church. She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback. Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt. She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986. Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.
Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session. Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.
“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel. Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.
Shorty George Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.
Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.
Up the Country Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.