Spotlight: Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie

Jimmie Rodgers, “with a real Blue Yodel” (autograph authenticity unverified—likely phony).

He was America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music.  He was Jimmie Rodgers.  From a humble upbringing, he went on to have a profound impact on the music and culture of the Western world.  Those counted among his devotees spread far and wide across the globe, his influence stretching from contemporaries like the Mississippi Sheiks and Big Bill Broonzy, to blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, to latter day superstars like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and too many country musicians to count.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that the legendary Robert Johnson’s guitar playing was an attempt to imitate Rodgers.  Without a doubt, he was among the most influential musical figures and cultural icons of the twentieth century.

James Charles Rodgers was born on September 8, 1897, the sixth of seven children of railroad man Aaron Woodberry Rodgers (1855 to 1933) and his wife, the former Eliza Bozeman (1868 to 1903), a humble family hailing from Meridian, Mississippi.  Although his birthplace is usually given as Meridian, Jimmie was likely born about forty miles northeast of there in his grandparents’ hometown of Geiger, Alabama—which Rodgers himself listed as his birthplace—and only began giving Meridian as his hometown to please the folks back home, who considered him a native.  Some sources alternatively list Pine Springs, Mississippi as his birthplace.  Jimmie’s mother died of the same disease that would eventually be his own downfall when he was but five years old, and the young boy was sent to live with a series of relatives nearby before returning home to live with his father, who had by then remarried.

As a young man, Jimmie’s father found him work on the railroad, first as a water boy.  Later, he became a brakeman for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad.  In his railroad work, Rodgers learned musical styles from hobos and fellow rail workers, and picked up blues traditions from the gandy dancers.  For a time, Rodgers relocated to Arizona to work for Southern Pacific, where he likely picked up some cowboy songs as well.  In 1920, Jimmie married Carrie Williamson and had two children, the second of whom died in infancy.  From his early youth, Rodgers was musically inclined, but he did not pursue a career in entertainment until later down the line.  When he was twenty-seven years old, Jimmie contracted tuberculosis, which put his railroad career to an end.  After some recuperation, Rodgers worked a variety of different jobs before deciding to focus on his passion for music and embark on a new career in entertainment. He found work in minstrel and vaudeville tent shows for a while, traveling around the South as an itinerant performer before more stable work came his way.

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Spotlight: Ruth Etting

Ruth Etting, circa 1930 (signed in 1932).

Ruth Etting, circa 1930 (signed in 1932).

“America’s Sweetheart of Song” was the appellation given to Ruth Etting, one which she truly deserved.  Etting rose to prominence in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, appearing in Ziegfeld Follies.  Marrying a gangster, falling in love with another, and becoming one of the most popular singing stars of stage, screen, record, and radio until she left the limelight in the late 1930s, going on to enjoy a long retirement thereafter.  Her sweetly feminine vocal styling charmed a generation of listeners, and continue to impress those who have the fortune of hearing her recordings to this day.

Ruth Etting was born November 23, 1897 in David City, Nebraska, daughter of Alfred and Winifred Etting.  After her mother died, when the young Ruth was five, she was sent to live with her grandparents, George and Hannah.  Growing up, Ruth dreamed of becoming an artist, and spent her hours drawing and sketching whenever and wherever she could.  Hoping to become an illustrator, Etting left home to attend an art school in Chicago.  Taking a variety of jobs while in Chicago, Etting was eventually asked to fill in for an ailing vocalist at a nightclub, and she obliged.  Having never been schooled in voice, Etting lowered her naturally high soprano as she began singing professionally.  She claimed her style to have been influenced by Marion Harris.

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Spotlight: Chick Bullock

From early 1930s "Perfect" record sleeve. An illustration of the only known photograph of Bullock in his prime.

An illustration of Bullock in his prime, from 1930s “Perfect” record sleeve.

One of the most prolific male vocalists of the 1930s, was Charles “Chick” Bullock. With his relaxed style and smooth tenor voice, Bullock recorded innumerable titles with groups ranging from sweet dance orchestras like Waring’s Pennsylvanians and Ed Kirkeby to hot jazz bands like Cab Calloway’s orchestra and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, even Don Azpiazu’s Havana Casino Orchestra as “Chiquito Bullo”, as well as his own group, the Levee Loungers.  Over the course of his career, Bullock worked with many, if not most, top musicians of the 1930s, recording hundreds of sides.  In fact, if you pulled out any record from the ARC labels (Banner, Perfect, Romeo, et al), there’s a good chance you’ll see “vocal chorus by Chick Bullock”.

Charles Sibley Bullock was born September 16, 1898 in Butte, Montana to British parents William (b.1858) and Emily Bullock (née Sibley) (b.1872), an engineer and teacher, respectively, who met and married after emigrating to the States.  Though his family wanted him to pursue a career as a doctor, he was destined for a life in the show business.  His first job in the entertainment industry had him working as an illustrated song performer between acts on the vaudeville stage.  Later, he worked his way from venue to venue into motion pictures, scoring a few small parts in silent films, but soon found he preferred singing, and left Hollywood to pursue a career in music.  In Salt Lake City, Bullock met Mary Newton, whom he would marry soon after.

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Spotlight: Vernon Dalhart

Dalhart in 1927, from the Cover of "My Blue Ridge Mountain Home"

From the 1927 cover of “My Blue Ridge Mountain Home”

One of the most popular recording artists in his day, and one of the least appreciated today, is classically trained tenor-turned-country singer Vernon Dalhart.  The first million-selling country artist, whose records enthralled the listeners of the 1920s, and sometimes annoy record collectors today because of their prevalence, a testament to his popularity.

The man who would become internationally famous as Vernon Dalhart was born Marion Try Slaughter II in the town of Jefferson, Texas on April 6, 1883 (some sources say 1881), son of Robert Marion “Bob” and Mary Jane Slaughter.  Growing up on a ranch outside town, Try, who went by his middle name, learned to play the harmonica, kazoo, and Jew’s harp.  The Slaughters, living up to their name, had a reputation as violent people, and when Try was ten in 1893, his uncle, also named Bob, shot his father following a dispute in the alley behind the Kahn Saloon in Jefferson.

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Spotlight: The Boswell Sisters

 “I am still Crazy over those Boswell Sisters. Bless their hearts. They are from my home town, you know? Fine Girls. They think I am the Last word.”

Louis Armstrong letter to friend, 1933

From 1931 sheet music cover.

From sheet music for “Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On”, 1931.

It would seem criminal to start the Spotlight feature with anyone but trio that perhaps created the jazziest interpretations of the popular music of the 1930s, the Boswell Sisters.  Stars of record, screen, and radio, those “syncopating harmonists from New Orleans” simply could not sing a bad song (and could even make a bad song good).  With over one-hundred recorded tunes and an established career in radio from 1930 until their untimely break-up in 1936, and an inimitable style that has never been matched, they were among the greatest musical stars of the Great Depression.

Martha Meldania (born July 9, 1905), Constance Foore (born December 3, 1907), and Helvetia George “Vet” (born May 20, 1911) Boswell, born to Meldania Fooré and Alfred Clyde “A.C.” Boswell made up the Boswell Sisters.  Martha and Connie were born in Kansas City, and Vet was born in Birmingham, but the family moved to New Orleans when the children were young.  The sisters had an older brother, Clydie (born 1900), who died tragically in 1918 during an influenza outbreak.  Around the time Vet was born, young Connie was either involved in a coaster wagon accident or stricken with polio, leaving her completely immobile for a short time, and unable to walk properly for the rest of her life.

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