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.

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.

Victor 19427 – Vernon Dalhart – 1924/1925

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.

Victor 19699 – Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler” – 1925

Though he left behind only a single record of his music—which, in my learned opinion, is among perhaps the top ten best old-time fiddle records ever made—”The Texas Fiddler” from Fort Worth, Moses J. Bonner, earned recognition in his home state and abroad as one of the finest men to ever pull a bow south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Moses Junior Bonner was born in Franklin County, Alabama, on March 1, 1847.  The family moved west to the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, when he was about seven years of age.  It was there that Bonner, as a child, learned to play fiddle from an older black musician in the area.  Following the death of his father, M.M. Bonner, the family pressed farther west on past Fort Worth, where they settled in Parker County.  At the outbreak of the war between the states, Bonner served in the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Company E, as a courier under Colonel William Henry Parsons.  After the war, he eventually settled in Fort Worth.  A prominent member of the United Confederate Veterans, Bonner participated in a fiddle contest sponsored by the organization in 1901, losing to fellow veteran Henry C. Gilliland, but becoming a founding member of the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.  He continued to be active at both veterans’ and fiddlers’ functions in the decades to come, both lobbying for congress to pass pensions for Confederate veterans and winning nine of twelve subsequent fiddle contests in which he participated.  He was also well known at said get-togethers for his lively jig dancing.  In 1911, he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts at the world’s championship contest.  On January 4 1923, Bonner participated in the first known radio “barn dance” program on WBAP in Fort Worth, accompanied by a local string band called the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  Two years later, when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their equipment down to Houston for their first field recording session in Texas, Bonner waxed two sides—one record—of fiery fiddle medleys, for which he promoted as “The Texas Fiddler”.  Bonner was the only “old-time” musician to participate in the field trip, which otherwise recorded only the dance orchestras of Lloyd Finlay and “Fatty” Martin.  Despite further sessions in Texas over the years that followed, Bonner never recorded again.  He did, however, remain an active participant in Confederate reunions all around the nation, ultimately achieving the honorary rank of Major General.  At the age of ninety-two, Moses J. Bonner died from pneumonia on September 2, 1939.

Victor 19699 was recorded on March 17, 1925, at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.  Bonner’s fiddling is accompanied on harp-guitar by Fred Wagoner of WBAP’s Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  The record was released later in the year, and sold only until sometime in 1926, perhaps only seeing regional sales.

Firstly, Bonner fiddles a medley of “Yearling’s in the Canebrake” and “The Gal on the Log”.  Seventy-eight-years-old at the time of recording, Bonner was by no means lacking in energy on these performances.

1. Yearling’s in the Canebrake 2. The Gal On the Log, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

On the flip, he plays an interpolation of “Dusty Miller” and “‘Ma’ Ferguson”—the latter honoring the first female governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson, who had assumed office only the preceding January.  The “wide-open” character heard in this performance and the other are perfectly exemplary, in my opinion, of early Texas fiddling, sounding far more at home on the range or prairie than than the mountain hollers of the eastern hills.

1. Dusty Miller 2. “Ma” Ferguson, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

Victor 21361 – Ernest Rogers – 1928/1927

Ernest Rogers in the 1940s, pictured on the dust jacket of his The Old Hokum Bucket, 1949.

We have heard once before from that Atlanta newspaper man and down-home song spinner—and one of my personal heroes—Ernest Rogers, when he graced us with his memorable rendition of the old vaudeville song “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper”.  Now, he’s with us once again, this time with perhaps even better material (though that old dope head Willie is hard to beat).  As I have already biographed Mr. Rogers somewhat thoroughly in the aforementioned article, I urge you to look there for the basic facts.

During his own life, Ernest Rogers was best known as a newsman, rather akin to the South’s answer to Walter Winchell as host and lead reporter of the Atlanta Journal‘s daily “Radio Headlines” program on Atlanta’s pioneering radio station WSB (“Welcome South, brother”).  Today however, it is his musical proclivities—namely the five records he made for Victor in 1927 and ’28—that have won him his most enduring fame, yet his activities in the field were far from limited to making records.  Rogers copyrighted his first song while still a student at Emory University in 1919.  When radio was in its infancy, Rogers joined the staff of Atlanta’s WSB, his crooning and guitar-picking making a hit with listeners at a time when, in Rogers’ own words, “anybody who could sing, whistle, recite, play any kind of instrument, or merely breathe heavily was pushed in front of the WSB microphone.”  In 1922, at the same time he was busy making his name on the radio, his composition “Tune in With My Heart”—celebrating the newly emerging medium—was recorded by popular baritone Ernest Hare.  Rogers made his own recording debut three years later, waxing a memorable—and probably the first—rendition of the vaudeville folk song “Willie the Weeper” coupled with his own composition “My Red-Haired Lady”.  Later in 1925, Francis Craig’s Atlanta-based territory band recorded Rogers’ waltz song “Forgiveness”, featuring the singing of a young James Melton in his first recording, helping to bring the tenor singer to prominence.  The year of 1927 began Rogers’ association with Victor Records, which proved to be both his most fruitful record engagement and his last.  In his first Victor session on the seventeenth of that February, he began with a duet with WSB announcer and director Lambdin Kay titled “Mr. Rogers and Mr. Kay”—probably in the style of the popular comic song “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”—which was never released.  He followed with a remake of “Willie the Weeper”, retitled “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” but nearly identical to his earlier recording.  The following May, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey, to make six more sides, starting out with a similar re-do of “My Red-Haired Lady”.  “The Flight of Lucky Lindbergh” celebrated the intrepid aviator’s historic journey only two days after he had landed safely in Paris.  On “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”, Rogers yodeled nearly three whole months before Jimmie Rodgers made his first record.  Finally, on February twenty-third of the following year, he completed his recorded legacy in a session that mirrored his first Victor session, making two sides of which only one was issued.  Out of a total of twelve recorded sides to his name (including the two unissued), nine were original compositions.  Though his recording career had thus ended, Ernest Rogers’ musical interests were far from their conclusion.  He continued to publish songs in the decades that followed.  Popular hillbilly artist Lew Childre recorded “My Red-Haired Lady” several times during his career [though having not heard the song, I cannot verify that it is indeed the same one].  In his later years, Rogers’ career as a newspaperman had taken precedence over his music-making, but he nevertheless never ceased from entertaining with his homespun ditties when the opportunity presented.

Victor 21361 was recorded in two separate sessions; the first side was recorded on February 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, the second was recorded on May 23, 1927, in Camden, New Jersey.  It was released in July of the same year, and remained in Victor’s catalog until 1931.

Providing stiff competition to his “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” for the title of Ernest Rogers’ best remembered song—surely thanks in no small part to its reissue on Tompkins Square’s Turn Me Loose—is his “The Mythological Blues”.  Rogers first composed the humorous song during his time at Emory University in 1919—the same year in which he founded the Emory Wheel—but it went unrecorded until his final session nearly ten years afterward.  With its lyrics contrasting ancient Greek and Roman mythology with the modern times of the Jazz Age (“of all the sights saw Jupiter spot ’em, seein’ sweet Venus, doin’ Black Bottom; oh take me back ten-thousand years when they played the Mythological Blues”) it makes for a marvelous swan song.

The Mythological Blues, recorded February 23, 1928 by Ernest Rogers.

On the flip, Rogers sings “I’ve Got the Misery”, but it sure sounds to me like there’s every known indication that he’s got the blues.  This side shines with some of Rogers’ poetry at its most eloquent: “Well, the fire in the stable destroyed the town; but it’s the fire in your eyes that truly burns me down.”

I’ve Got the Misery, recorded May 23, 1927 by Ernest Rogers.