Okeh 4918 – King Oliver’s Jazz Band – 1923

Though unquestionably a truly legendary figure in the history of jazz, the legacy of Joe Oliver has been overshadowed that of his foremost disciple: Louis Armstrong.  But to some of us moldy figs, Joe Oliver is still king.

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band around 1923.  From left to right: Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Honoré Dutrey, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Lil Hardin, and Bud Scott.  Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.

Joseph Nathan Oliver was born in Aben, Louisiana and moved to New Orleans in his youth.  The date of his birth is uncertain, but December 19, 1881 is the most probable candidate; the same date in 1885, and May 11, 1885 have also been posited.  At first taking up the trombone, Oliver soon switched to cornet.  As a youth, Joe Oliver lost sight in his left eye in a fight, and often played with a derby hat tipped down over it.  He won the title “King” of New Orleans cornettists, which had earlier belonged to Buddy Bolden, from Freddie Keppard one night in 1916.  Oliver took up in Chicago in 1919 and founded his famous Creole Jazz Band, soon becoming a fixture in the Windy City.  In 1922, he sent for his young protégé Louis Armstrong, who was back home in New Orleans, to join him in the city.  King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band waxed their first phonograph record sides for the Starr Piano Company, makers of Gennett records, in their famous “shack by the track” in Richmond, Indiana on April 5, 1923.  They made a total of thirteen sides for Gennett before moving on to record fifteen more for Okeh, four for Columbia, and three for Paramount, before breaking up in 1924.  Thereafter, he recorded some landmark duets with Jelly Roll Morton for Marsh Labs in Chicago in 1925, and soon started a new band, the Dixie Syncopators, which began recording for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1926.  The Dixie Syncopators, which at various times included Luis Russell, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries, stuck together until the end of 1928, after which Russell took over the reins.  In 1927, at the height of his success, Oliver was offered the position of house bandleader at Harlem’s Cotton Club, but he declined, hoping to hold out for more money.  Instead, the gig went to Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.  On the side, Oliver also recorded occasionally as a sidemen with jazz bands such as Clarence Williams’ various orchestras and Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang‘s Gin Bottle Five, and with blues singers like “Texas” Alexander, Victoria Spivey, and Lizzie Miles.  Thanks in no small part to his penchant for sugar sandwiches washed down with a bucket of sugar water, Oliver by this time had developed gum disease, which limited his ability to play cornet.  Nonetheless, he signed with Victor in 1929 to record with a new orchestra, which often featured his nephew Dave Nelson, though his own involvement was frequently relegated to directing.  In 1931, Oliver went back to Brunswick for three final sessions, from which the last three titles were released on Vocalion under the pseudonym “Chocolate Dandies”, and he never recorded again.  He continued to tour with a band until money ran out, leaving him broke and stranded, in a Savannah, Georgia, where he found work as a janitor in a pool hall.  Joe Oliver died penniless of arteriosclerosis on April 10, 1938

Okeh 4918 was recorded June 23, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  King Oliver’s (Creole) Jazz Band consists of Joseph “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, and Baby Dodds on drums.

A re-doing of the same tune King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band originally recorded for Gennett in April of 1923, “Dipper Mouth Blues”, composed by Oliver and Armstrong is certainly the group’s most famous efforts.  Oliver famous cornet solo beginning one minute and seventeen seconds into the recording was hugely influential to the genre, and frequently imitated in subsequent years.  After Louis Armstrong left the band, he took “Dipper Mouth” with him to Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, and the piece was re-arranged by Don Redman and recorded as “Sugar Foot Stomp”.  Henderson kept the piece in his repertoire after Armstrong’s departure and recorded it at least thrice more.

Dipper Mouth Blues

Dipper Mouth Blues, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.

On the reverse of this disc is Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong’s composition: “Where Did You Stay Last Night?”.  Armstrong kept the tune in his repertoire and in later years performed it with his All-Stars.

Where Did You Stay Last Night?

Where Did You Stay Last Night?, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.

Victor V-40089 – Carter Family – 1929

The Carter Family—Maybelle, Sara, and A.P.—in the late 1920s, pictured in the Victor catalog.

I have written of the illustrious Carter Family before, more than once, but nothing I’ve so far published has done justice to their tremendous impact and legacy.  In fact, I doubt whether I would be able to write anything that could honor their legend sufficiently.  Nonetheless, I will do my best to pay them a worthy tribute, and I cannot think of a better record to accompany that attempt than the one herein.  Not only is it without question among their finest works, but it contains, according to legend, the song that brought the Carters together, and the song that tore them apart.

The saga of the original Carter Family begins with the birth of Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter in Maces Spring, Virginia, on December 15, 1891.  The son of Robert C. Carter and Mollie Arvelle Bays, growing up ‘midst the Blue Ridge Mountaintops fostered in the young Carter a love for music, and he took up the fiddle, but never achieved much note for his musicianship on the instrument.  Music making did not put food on the table however, and so Carter found work as a traveling salesman, peddling fruit trees.  It was in this line of work that he encountered the youthful Sara Elizabeth Dougherty, sitting on her porch and strumming her auto-harp.  Far A.P. Carter, it was love at first sight, and they were married on June 18, 1915.  In the following decade, Sara’s cousin Maybelle (who was also married to Carter’s brother Ezra) joined the couple and they formed a music group—the Carter Family.

Come the summer of 1927, A.P. got word of a record session to be held in Bristol, Tennessee, about twenty-five miles away from their homeplace in Maces Spring.  He convinced Sara and Maybelle to make the journey, and they arrived late on the night of August first, and auditioned for Mr. Ralph S. Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company.  That day and the next, the Carter Family cut six sides: “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”, “Little Log Cabin By the Sea”, “The Poor Orphan Child”, “The Storms are On the Ocean”, “Single Girl, Married Girl”, and “The Wandering Boy”.  Their first records were released that November, and proved successful enough to bring the Carters back to the Victor studio for further recordings, and they did so prolifically.  Between then and the end of 1934, they waxed over one-hundred-fifty sides for the Victor company.  To ensure that the group had enough material to ensure continued financial success, A.P. set out to canvas the mountains in search of good songs, which he then copyrighted in his own name.  In one such travel, Carter encountered the black musician Lesley Riddle, and the two became friends.  Riddle impressed both his folk repertoire and his method of guitar playing upon the Carters.

In 1935, the Carter Family began recording for the American Record Corporation, but all was not well behind the microphone, for A.P.’s long song-hunting stretches away from his family drove Sara into the arms of A.P.’s cousin Coy Bayes.  Sara and A.P.’s marriage dissolved in 1936, but the Carter Family stuck together as a music group for the time being.  From 1936 until 1938, they recorded for Decca, before returning to the ARC for a string of records on their Okeh label in 1940.  In the meantime, the Carter Family had relocated to Del Rio, Texas, from where they commuted to Mexico to perform on “border blaster” radio station XERA in Villa Acuña, Coahuila.  The 500,000 watt station could be heard across most of the United States, and put the sounds of the Carters on the hearth of countless American homes, inspiring a wave of up-and-coming musicians.  In some of these radio appearances, they were joined by the Carter children: Janette, Joe, Helen, June, and Anita.  In October of 1941, the original Carter Family traveled to New York City to record one final session with the RCA Victor Company, for their Bluebird label.  Around that time, they were photographed for a spread in Life magazine, scheduled to be published on December 8, 1941.  With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurring the very day before, needless to say it was bumped from the publication.  And thus, as the war broke out, the original Carter Family broke apart; Sara moved to California with her new husband, A.P. and Maybelle returned to Maces Spring, where he opened a general store.

That was not the end of their story however, Maybelle Carter continued the musical tradition with her children—Helen, Anita, and June—performing as “Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters” in the years to come, landing a place on the Grand Ole Opry in 1950 and remaining active until the 1970s.  The original member reunited occasionally, as well, resulting in several sessions for Acme Records in the 1950s.  A.P. Carter died on November 7, 1960, his dying wish to keep the music alive.  Maybelle passed on October 23, 1978.  The last surviving member of the original trio, Sara Carter Bayes died on January 8, 1979.  A.P. Carter’s last wishes were fulfilled with the establishment of the Carter Family Fold in Maces Spring, Virginia, founded by his daughter Janette in 1979 and devoted to the preservation of old-time Appalachian folk music.  The beloved legacy of music put forth by the Carter Family remains indelibly attached to the American experience, and shows no sign of faltering as the years go by.

Victor V-40089 was recorded on February 15th and 14th of 1929, respectively, at Victor’s home in Camden, New Jersey.  The Carter Family consists of Sara on auto-harp and Maybelle on guitar, both of course singing.  A.P. joins in singing on side “B”.

The story goes that when A.P. Carter met Sara while traveling door-to-door peddling fruit trees, she was sitting out on her porch singing “Engine One-Forty-Three” and playing her auto-harp, and he fell in love at first sight and approached with matrimonial intentions.  The song tells the true story of a wreck on the C & O line on October 23, 1890 near Hinton, West Virginia.  This recording also bears the distinction of being one of the five songs by the Carter Family that were included by Harry Smith in his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music.

Engine One-Forty-Three, recorded February 15, 1929 by the Carter Family.

While the previous is said to be the song that birthed the Carter Family, the following is said to have eventually broken them up.  After her divorce, Sara Carter wasn’t happy performing on border radio with her ex-husband, while her lover Coy Bayes was in California.  One show, she dedicated a performance of “I’m Thinking To-Night of My Blue Eyes” to Bayes, and he rushed down to Del Rio to sweep her off her feet and back west, leaving A.P., Maybelle, and the children to return home to Maces Spring, and thus bringing the story of the original Carter Family to its close.  A standard of the Carters’ repertoire, they recorded it twice, and many other artists covered it subsequently.

I’m Thinking To-Night of My Blue Eyes, recorded February 14, 1929 by the Carter Family.

Columbia 14410-D – Dallas String Band with Coley Jones – 1928

With a repertoire ranging from ragtime to pop songs, the eight songs recorded by the Dallas String Band are incomparable to most anything else on shellac records, and indeed are very difficult to categorize—they’re sometimes characterized as “pre-blues”, but none could technically be classified as blues songs, they bear some resemblance to white Texas string band music, and they’re all listed in Rust’s Jazz Records discography—but they are surely among the most fascinating music ever preserved.  It probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to presume that their music bears substantial similarity to rural Afro-American music of the nineteenth century.

Though little is known of his life, Coley Jones was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s.  Born most likely in the 1880s, and may have been in Dallas by the turn of the century.  As an itinerant musician, playing in medicine show type venues, his repertoire consisted largely of folk songs and old minstrel tunes like “Drunkard’s Special” and “Traveling Man”.  Jones’ most notable contribution to music was as a member of the Dallas String Band, along with Marco Washington—stepfather of Dallas native Aaron Walker, also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, and later as “T-Bone Walker”—and Sam Harris, playing music that could best be described as “pre-blues”.  Their repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, including such songs as “So Tired” and “Chasin’ Rainbows”, as well as popular songs like “Shine” and “Sugar Blues”.  In addition to the Dallas String Band, Jones was a member of a jazz band by the name of the Satisfied Five, which also included noted drummer Herbert Cowans, with whom he broadcasted on WFAA and played at the famed Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.  Every December from 1927 until 1929, Jones recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas.  In addition to recording twenty-one sides of his own—solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac—and with the Dallas String Band, he accompanied local musicians Texas Bill Day and Billiken Johnson on a further six.  He probably also recorded two unissued sides for Brunswick under the pseudonym “Coley Dotson” in 1929.  Following his brief recording career, Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s.  Posthumously, Jones’ “Drunkard’s Special”, based on an old British folk song, was included on Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, and the Dallas String Band’s “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.

Columbia 14410-D was recorded on December 9, 1928 in Dallas, Texas.  The Dallas String Band is made up of Coley Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, probably Sam Harris on guitar, and Marco Washington on string bass.   Rust lists an unknown second mandolin, but I’m not so sure.

On the first side, they play the sublime “Chasin’ Rainbows”.  I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit to place this song easily in my top ten favorite recordings.  The song is perhaps better known by the cover version by R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders to audiences outside of, well, R. Crumb (and the few of us out there like him).

Chasin' Rainbows

Chasin’ Rainbows, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.

On the reverse, “I Used to Call Her Baby” is another pleasing raggy number, played this time with a little more pep.

I Used to Call Her Baby

I Used to Call Her Baby, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.

Paramount 12565 – Blind Blake – 1927

Blind Blake was one of the most prolific male blues artists of the 1920s, and one of the most skilled guitarists of all time, yet today details about his life and times are even scarcer than his records.  He turned up in Chicago, recorded one-hundred-and-twenty-some-odd sides, both solo and as an accompanist, then disappeared from sight of the prying eyes of history.  Even among his contemporaries, Blind Blake seemed to be something of an enigma, though they universally hailed his musical abilities.  With all the mystery surrounding Blake, all that is certainly clear is that his virtuosity was second-to-none.

Blind Blake, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.  A cropped version of the only known photograph of him.

Arthur Blake, misidentified by some sources—including Blind Willie McTell—as Arthur Phelps, was born, reportedly, in 1896.  Paramount’s 1927 Book of Blues stated that he hailed from “Jacksonville, in sunny Florida,” but his death certificate placed his birth in Newport News, Virginia.  Either way, it is probable that Florida served as his home for a large portion of his life.  Whether or not he was born blind is also the subject of speculation; the aforementioned Book of Blues suggested as much, but some have proposed that he was born sighted, but or developed his condition later in life (perhaps as a result of some bad bootleg).  Purportedly on the recommendation of a Florida record dealer, Blake traveled to Chicago and made his recording debut for Paramount Records in July of 1926, accompanying singer Leola B. Wilson, and cut his first solo record a month later: “Early Morning Blues” and “West Coast Blues” appearing on Paramount 12387.  He was noted for his ability to play a guitar like a piano, capable of producing intricate fingerpicked ragtime melodies with a Charleston rhythm—exemplified in such pieces as his tour de force “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892)—and indeed he was also a skilled pianist, though he only demonstrated that ability on one recording: “Let Your Love Come Down”, accompanying Bertha Henderson.  Alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson and Papa Charlie Jackson, Blake became one of the most successful male blues artists on Paramount’s roster, and he collaborated periodically with other artists such as Gus Cannon on titles like “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “My Money Never Runs Out” (Paramount 12588 and 12604), Charlie Spand on the stomping boogie-woogie “Hastings St.” (Paramount 12863), Charlie Jackson on “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It” (Paramount 12911), and jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds on several sides including “C.C. Pill Blues” (Paramount 12634).  Blake concluded his recording career with “Champagne Charlie is My Name” and “Depression’s Gone from Me Blues”, the latter set to the popular melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin around June of 1932 and released on Paramount 13137.  To add further mystery, there is question as to whether the performer of “Champagne Charlie is My Name” actually is Blake at all, or some unknown artist masquerading under his name (personally, I’m under the impression that it probably is Blake, though it is below his usual quality; maybe he was hitting the bottle that day).  Not long after that last session, Paramount Records folded, and Blake never recorded again.  He remained in Wisconsin in the 1930s, living in Brewer’s Hill in Milwaukee with his wife Beatrice, though he was unable to find work during the hard times of the Great Depression.  Blake fell ill with pneumonia in 1933 and died from complications of tuberculosis on December 1, 1934.

Blind Blake’s virtuoso ragtime guitar playing served as a major influence on the Piedmont style of blues playing, and directly influenced many of its foremost musicians, including Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, as well as—directly and indirectly—countless other musicians.  Renowned guitarist Rev. Blind Gary Davis drew considerable inspiration from Blake, and once mused that he “ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on guitar.  [He liked] Blake because he plays right sporty.”  In later years, Gus Cannon later recalled that Blake “could see more with his blind eyes than [Cannon] with [his] two good ones.”  Georgia Tom Dorsey remembered Blake as “a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with.”  Race records executive J. Mayo Williams stated that Blake “liked to get drunk and fight.”

Paramount 12565 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, in November and October of 1927, respectively.  It also appeared on Broadway 5053 under the pseudonym “Blind George Martin”.  On side “A”, Blake is accompanied on banjo by Gus Cannon, who was recording for Paramount at the time as “Banjo Joe”, and in fact it is Cannon’s first recording.  Alas, the record is afflicted by a condition endemic to these Paramounts; though not in particularly poor condition and the music is mostly clear and undistorted, poor pressing quality and decades of less-than-optimal storage have resulted in a high level of surface noise behind the music.  To make things worse, both sides were recorded at a rather low volume.  As such, both sides are most assuredly audible (and even enjoyable to my desensitized ears), but I apologize for not being able to offer better quality sound.

First, Blake sings the medicine show favorite “He’s in the Jail House Now”, later popularized by Jimmie Rodgers’ two landmark recordings, though I would consider Blake’s version here to be the definitive.  Other notable versions of the vaudeville staple were recorded by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924, Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1927, Jim Jackson in 1928, Boyd Senter’s Senterpedes in 1929, the Memphis Jug Band and Bill Bruner, the latter of which drew both on Rodgers and Blake’s versions, in 1930, Eliot Everett’s Orchestra in 1932, and Billy Mitchell in 1936, not counting outright copies of Rodgers’ rendition by the likes of Gene Autry and Frankie Marvin, and the song remains popular on the roots music scene today, with performances by such artists as Dom Flemons and Pokey LaFarge.

He’s in the Jail House Now, recorded c. November 1927 by Blind Blake.

On the reverse, another of Blake’s best, he shows off his guitar-playing prowess on “Southern Rag”, punctuated by spoken interjections in Geechee dialect.  “Now we goin’ on an old Southern r… rag!”

Southern Rag, recorded c. October 1927 by Blind Blake.

Paramount 12296 – Charlie Jackson – 1925

Papa Charlie Jackson, as he appeared in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.

The time has come to pay tribute to one of the greatest and most prolific “songster” musicians to record, as well as one of my own personal favorites: the incomparable Papa Charlie Jackson.

“Papa” Charlie Jackson was born in New Orleans, purportedly on November 10, 1887 and by the name William Henry Jackson.  The Paramount Book of Blues described his character as “witty—cheerful—kind hearted,” and armed with a commanding voice and banjo-playing skills to match, he started out playing in tent shows and vaudeville, eventually winding up in Chicago.  Rather than the more common guitar or five-string banjo, Jackson opted for the somewhat unconventional six-string banjo-guitar, though he occasionally switched to a standard acoustic guitar.  In Chicago, Jackson performed at various local establishments and busked on Maxwell Street.  Signed to Paramount Records in the summer of 1924, Jackson became the first male blues artist on the label’s roster—as well as one of the earliest male blues artists to record for anybody—and quickly one of its most successful regardless of sex.  In addition to his solo records, Jackson recorded in duet with Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Blind Blake, and Hattie McDaniel on separate occasions, and provided banjo and vocals for jazz bands such as Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals and Tiny Parham’s “Forty” Five.  A few of his songs, notably “Shake that Thing” and “Salty Dog”, achieved huge success.  From 1924 until 1930, Jackson recorded around seventy hokum, blues, and folk songs for Paramount, not counting those where he was an accompanist or instrumentalist.  Well into the Great Depression and after four years of recording silence, Jackson concluded his recording career with two sessions for Okeh in 1934 yielding two records, followed by one unconfirmed 1935 session for Bluebird backing Big Bill Broonzy.  Falling thereafter into a period of total obscurity, Charlie Jackson died in Chicago on May 7, 1938.

Paramount 12296 was recorded around August of 1925 in Chicago, Illinois by Charlie Jackson, singing with accompaniment by his own banjo-guitar.

First up, Papa Charlie sings a little hokum on the classic “Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here)”, a variant of the timeless “Mama Don’t Allow”, usually attributed to Cow Cow Davenport.  Here the composer is credited as William Henry Jackson.

Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here), recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.

Next, Jackson sings his own “Take Me Back Blues”, one of his many compositions.  Evidently a popular number, he later followed this tune up with “Take Me Back Blues No. 2” in 1929, issued on Paramount 12797, that time on an ordinary acoustic guitar and with considerably less energy.

Take Me Back Blues, recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.