Vocalion 1111 – Furry Lewis – 1927

There are some folks who say that seeing two “elevens” in a row holds some special or otherworldly significance.  Well, I don’t claim to know a thing about that, but I would say that this record does little to refute that proposition, for it constitutes the earliest musical document of a man who would in later years become one of the most beloved ambassadors of the blues during the its latter-day revival: Furry Lewis.

Walter E. Lewis is said to have been born on the sixth of March, likely in 1899 (as suggested by the U.S. Census of 1900), though the man himself claimed to have been born in 1893, and many (older) sources agree with that date.  He hailed originally from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, but grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was nicknamed “Furry” from a young age for reasons now lost to time.  It was probably around the same time that he took up music, starting out on a homemade cigar box guitar.  He claimed that his first “proper” instrument was given to him by the Father of the Blues himself: W.C. Handy.  In his youth, Furry took to a life of hoboing, which cost him his left leg in 1917, after he got it caught in a coupling between train cars in an ill-fated attempt to ride the blinds.  Thereafter, he returned home to Memphis and played around Beale Street.  Sometime in the early 1920s, Furry encountered songster extraordinaire Jim Jackson, who hooked him up with a job performing in Dr. Willie Lewis’s traveling medicine show.

In April of 1927, Furry traveled to Chicago to cut his first two-and-a-half records (and one unissued side) for Vocalion, who promoted him as singing “blues in a real Southern style.” He returned there in October of the same year to make three more records, plus an unreleased recording of “Casey Jones Blues”.  Finally, when the Victor Talking Machine Company made one of their excursions south, Furry cut eight more sides at the Memphis Auditorium on August 28, 1928, which included some of his finest and best known works.  Though not the most sophisticated of guitar players, he was a master of his own style with relaxed competence, and his natural showmanship, combined with exceptional diction and an amiable personality, made him a magnetic performer.  A career in music did not put food on Furry’s table however, and he spent most of his life in obscurity, working odd jobs for the city of Memphis, primarily as a street sweeper.  He still played music professionally—if only part time—at least as late as 1940, at which time he was enumerated by the U.S. Census in Missouri as a forty-four-year-old musician working for the “carnival”, and married to a blues singer by the name of Anny Mae Bell (though in later years he was quoted as saying “what do I need with a wife as long as the other man’s got one”).

In 1952, Harry Smith included Lewis’s two-part Victor recording of “Kassie Jones” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, and when the white folks at large finally came around to appreciating the musical merits of the Afro-American blues during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Furry was among the first of the drove of still-living bluesmen of the genre’s first generation on records to be “rediscovered” (though really he was there all along).  He was recorded in his Memphis home by Samuel B. Charters in 1959, resulting in a Folkways LP which bring him into a greater spotlight than he had ever known before.  As his style of music enjoyed a surge of popularity the likes of which it had never known before, Furry rose to a position of stardom that exceeded that of his contemporaries; while most of the rediscovered blues greats mostly found their greatest success at folk music festivals and such affairs, Furry’s fame brought him a guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1974 and a small role in the 1975 Burt Reynolds movie W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and he opened for the Rolling Stones on two occasions.  After enjoying his newfound fame for more than a decade, Furry Lewis died in Memphis of heart failure, complicated by pneumonia, on September 14, 1981.

Vocalion 1111 was recorded on April 20, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  Furry Lewis accompanies himself on his own guitar on side “A”, but on “B” is instead accompanied by Landers Waller on guitar and Charles Johnson on mandolin (one of whom can be heard in the background making comments).

Though some discographies suggest otherwise, the guitar playing on “Rock Island Blues” is unmistakably Furry’s own handiwork, and the melody closely mirrors that of his “Furry’s Blues” and “Good Looking Girl Blues”.

Rock Island Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

On the “B” side, Johnson’s mandolin and Waller’s guitar lend an entirely different atmosphere to “Everybody’s Blues”.

Everybody’s Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

Vocalion 5250 – Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band – 1928

Nearly a decade before the days of Bob Wills and Milton Brown created the mold for the Western Swing band, the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, under leader Otto Gray, paved the way for their style of showmanship with their barnstorming nation-wide touring, widespread radio exposure, exuberant stage presence, and extraordinarily large ten-gallon hats.

Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys on a promotional postcard. Circa 1930.

Officially, the venerable Oklahoma Cowboy Band was founded in 1924 by real cowboy Billy McGinty, born January 1, 1871, who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  However, it seems that inklings of the organization existed as early as 1921.  Under McGinty, the band made one record, including the first recording of “Midnight Special”, for Okeh in 1926.  Soon after, McGinty retired from music to focus on his ranch and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, Oklahoma, and the band’s manager and announcer Otto Gray assumed leadership.  Gray was a Stillwater man, born March 2, 1884.  On the side he raised midget cattle on his Oklahoma ranch.

Members came in and out throughout their run, but in their heyday, the band had a fairly steady lineup consisting of three Gray family members: Otto; his wife, the former Florence Opal Powell, known as “Mommie” (February 27, 1888 to November 14, 1950), who sang occasionally; his son Owen (February 3, 1908 to August 12, 1947), who sang and played guitar; the Allen brothers: fiddler Lee “Zeke” and left-handed banjo picker Wade “Hy” Allen (not the same Allen Brothers as the “Chattanooga Boys”); “Chief” Sanders; and Rex, the “wonderful police dog,” the “bark of the air,” who barked in rhythm on their radio shows.  Most of the band members were competent on more than one instrument, and one of their novelties was to “finger one instrument and play another.”

Under Gray’s leadership, the Oklahoma Cowboys toured the vaudeville circuit, and reportedly appeared on over 130 radio station across the States.  On the record, they recorded fifteen sides for Gennett in 1928, of which seven were issued, with an additional two in 1930, followed by eighteen sides for Brunswick/Vocalion from 1928 to 1931, all of which were issued.  In spite of their relatively prolific recording career, their records are quite scarce today.  They shot a one-reeler, titled Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, for Veribest Pictures in 1929 or ’30.  In November, 1930, they published and official songbook, titled Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, which sold for fifty cents a copy and included some hits from their repertoire, such as “Midnight Special” and “Adam and Eve”.  On June 6, 1931, they became the first Western band to be featured on the cover of Billboard magazine. The Oklahoma Cowboys continued to perform into the late 1930s; Otto Gray retired from music in 1936.

Vocalion 5250 was recorded on September 17, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.  The personnel at this session is unconfirmed, but likely includes “Chief” Sanders on fiddle, Wade “Hy” Allen on left handed tenor banjo, Owen “Zeb” Gray on guitar, and another unknown guitarist—quite possibly Lee “Zeke” Allen, seeing as he’s only official band member not accounted for in that listing aside from “Mommie”, but I’m not sure if she played an instrument, and he did play second guitar in their 1929 short film.  Owen Gray performs the vocals on both sides.

First, Zeb tells the story of mankind from Adam to Ford on the humorous “Adam and Eve”.

Adam and Eve, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Next, on a popular hillbilly song and staple of the Oklahoma Cowboys’ repertoire, Zeb tells us all that we shouldn’t—or couldn’t—be doing: (don’t try it, ’cause) “It Can’t Be Done”.

It Can’t Be Done, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Okeh 8554 – “Mooch” Richardson – 1928

Like old Seth Richard, “Mooch” Richardson is one of the countless blues musicians whose life and times are shrouded in obscurity.  He showed up for two sessions while the Okeh company was in Memphis, producing a series of outstanding country blues recordings, then disappeared back into obscurity once they were complete.

Perhaps the only really concrete fact known about “Mooch” is that he was really James Richardson.  It has been supposed based upon his “Helena Blues”, that he hailed from Helena, Arkansas.  Historian Paul Oliver, in his Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues, suggested that Richardson was a pianist, based apparently upon his two-part recording of “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues”, and implying that Richardson played piano on those recordings (though he in fact did not).  In February of 1928, Richardson appeared at two consecutive sessions in Memphis for Okeh, resulting in a total of nine recordings, six of which were released.  He was backed by Lonnie Johnson either on the latter session or both, accounts differ.  Whether or not Richardson was a resident of Memphis is another unknown.  Those two record dates serve as the only hard evidence of “Mooch” Richardson, whatever became of him afterward is anyone’s guess (unless they’ve got access to better information than me).

Okeh 8554 was recorded on February 13, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee.  There is question as to whether the guitar accompaniment is played by Richardson himself or by Lonnie Johnson; some sources state that Richardson accompanied himself on his first record date (which produced these two), and Johnson on his second, while others indicate that all of his recordings feature Johnson.  To my ear, while the guitar playing sounds a bit more “standard country blues” than Johnson’s usual style of playing—which tended to be heavy on bent notes and elaborate melodic single-string runs—it at the same time could indeed quite plausibly be him; certainly Johnson was a skilled enough musician to play in such a style.  The DAHR lists Lonnie Johnson on the first side and Richardson on the second, but both sound to be the same player, and if anything the “B” side sounds more like Johnson than the first.  The more I listen to it, the more I think it is Johnson.  It’s beautiful playing one way or the other.  Contributors to the 78 Quarterly suggested “twenty-five or more” extant copies, with this copy being one of the ones reported (at which time it was in the collection of George Paulus).

First up is the excellent “T and T Blues”, a mostly, if not entirely floating verse song drawing its name from the line “well it’s ‘T’ for Texas, lawd, I got a ‘T’ for Tennessee,” also heard in “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”, and famously in Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel”, as well as others, including Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”.

T and T Blues, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.

Another floating verse song, Richardson next sings “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1”.  You gotta buy another record if you want to hear part two.

“Mooch” Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.

Okeh 41283 – Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine – 1929

Sunny Clapp's band, during their tenure with Victor. From 1930 Victor catalog.

The Band O’Sunshine, during their tenure with Victor. From 1930 Victor catalog.

One of the top names in the territory band game was Sunny Clapp, who led bands all across the southeastern United States in the 1920s and 1930s.  However, Clapp’s greatest claim to fame was his 1927 composition of “Girl of My Dreams”, a waltz song introduced by Blue Steele’s orchestra, that made a huge hit in that year, and continues to be sung to this day.  In spite of Clapp’s success in his day, surprisingly few details about his life are known today.

Charles Franklin “Sunny” Clapp (not “Sonny”, though frequently called such) was born on February 5, 1899 in either Battle Creek, Michigan or Galesburg, Illinois.  A trombonist like his contemporary Blue Steele, he was also skilled on saxophone and clarinet.  Clapp played with Ross Gorman’s band in 1926, with Blue Steele in 1927, Jimmy McHugh’s Bostonians and Slim Lamar’s Southerners in 1928 and ’29, and possibly Roy Wilson’s Georgia Crackers in 1931, alongside an impressive array of important jazzmen including Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, and Benny Goodman.  Brian Rust also suggested that he may have played tenor saxophone with the Six Brown Brothers in 1916, at the age of seventeen, though that seems rather dubious to say the least.  His composition “Girl of My Dreams” became a major hit in 1927. Around the end of 1928, Clapp organized a territory dance band of his own, dubbed his “Band o’ Sunshine”, which featured the talents of Texas cornetist Tom Howell and New Orleans clarinettist Sidney Arodin, and for one session, Hoagy Carmichael.  They recorded in San Antonio, Texas, Camden, New Jersey, and in New York, first for Okeh in 1929, then for Victor until July of 1931, with some of his later records appearing on the short-lived Timely Tunes label, and presumably also toured across the Texas region.  During the years of the Great Depression, Sunny Clapp disappeared from the recording industry, and whatever became of him thereafter is now lost to time.  All that is known of Sunny Clapp’s later life is that he died on December 9, 1962 in San Fernando, California.

Okeh 41283 was recorded June 20, 1929 in San Antonio, Texas by Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine.  The Band O’Sunshine consists of Bob Hutchingson on trumpet, Sunny Clapp on trombone and alto sax, Sidney Arodin on clarinet and alto sax, Mac McCracken on tenor sax, Dick Dickerson on baritone sax, Cliff Brewton on piano, Lew Bray on banjo, guitar, and violin, Francis Palmer on tuba, and Joe Hudson on drums.  Trumpet player Bob Huchingson provides the vocal on both sides.

On the first side, “they made her sweeter than sweetest of sweet things”, and made “A Bundle of Southern Sunshine”, played in a style quite reminiscent of Blue Steele’s, and capped off with Clapp himself exclaiming at the end, “let the sun shine.”  If this wasn’t their theme song, it should have been.

A Bundle of Southern Sunshine

A Bundle of Southern Sunshine, recorded June 20, 1929 by Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine.

The flip side, “I Found the Girl of My Dreams”, is not Clapp’s famous composition, but rather another of his compositions in the same vein.  In fact, if these two sides are anything to go by, he really loved to write songs about girls of one’s dreams.

I Found the Girl of My Dreams

I Found the Girl of My Dreams, recorded June 20, 1929 by Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine.

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.