Victor 19744 – Seger Ellis – 1925

Seger Ellis, as pictured on his Okeh record label.

The United States of America isn’t the only one born on the fourth of July, for it’s also the birthday of Texas’ own Seger Ellis, popular crooner of the Jazz Age.  But perhaps Ellis’ greatest talent was on the piano that gave him his start down the road to fame.

Seger Pillot Ellis was born on Independence Day of 1904 in Houston, Texas.  He learned to play piano sometime in his early years from Jack Sharpe (who later recorded with the KXYZ Novelty Band) and began performing on local radio station KPRC in 1925.  He also played in Lloyd Finlay’s Houston-based jazz band, with whom he made his first records when Victor made their first field trip to Texas in March of ’25.  Aside from the seven sides with Finlay, Ellis recorded two solo sides playing piano: “Prairie Blues” and “Sweet Lovable You”, both compositions of his own.  Both masters were rejected, apparently for technical reasons, but Ellis was invited thereafter to come to Camden, New Jersey and re-make them, and that he did.  Between 1925 and 1930, Seger Ellis recorded a total of twenty-three piano solos for Victor, Columbia, and Okeh records, of which only ten were released, all of them excellent hard-driving rag pieces showcasing a strong left hand.  In spite of his outstanding piano abilities, Ellis’ real fame was to come from his warbly tenor croon.

After signing with Okeh in 1926 as something of their answer to successful Victor artist (and fellow Texan) Gene Austin, Ellis rose to become one of the label’s most heavily promoted artists.  He toured England in 1928, and the same year was granted a picture label devoted to his records, an honor previously bestowed to the likes of Paul Whiteman and Ted Lewis.  A jazzbo through-and-through, Ellis’ accompaniment often included the Dorsey Brothers, and for one session Louis Armstrong, and in addition to his popular vocals, he sang alongside jazz bands like Frankie Trumbauer’s, and occasionally made “hillbilly” records as “Bud Blue”.  In 1929, he starred in a Warner Brothers Vitaphone short titled How Can I Love You?  He retained his successful engagement with Okeh through the end of 1930, at which time he briefly signed with Brunswick.  The Great Depression found Ellis in a period of recording dormancy, though he continued to work.  As a radio personality on Cincinnati’s WLW, Ellis is remembered for giving the Mills Brothers their big break.  In the 1930s, Ellis married vocalist Irene Taylor (the “Mississippi Mud girl”).  Ellis resumed his recording career for Decca in 1936, at first singing with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra, but soon starting up a swing band of his own.  Two years later, he returned to Brunswick, this time as director of his “Choir of Brass” orchestra, featuring Taylor as vocalist.  That band lasted until 1941—moving to Vocalion and later Okeh following Brunswick’s demise—after which Ellis returned home to Texas and divorced Irene Taylor.  Ellis served his country during the war, and afterwards made a few more records for the Bullet label of Nashville in 1948, and a few more for Kapp in the 1950s, by which time his voice had matured into a robust baritone.  Through the following decades he remained active as a songwriter, for which he is remembered for “You’re All I Want For Christmas” (as well as “Shivery Stomp” from so many years earlier) and continued to perform locally, but disappeared from the national spotlight.  Seger Ellis died at the age of ninety-one on September 29, 1995, in his hometown of Houston.

Victor 19755 was recorded on August 10, 1925 at Victor’s headquarters in Camden, New Jersey.  It was released in November of ’25, and stayed in the Victor catalog until 1931.

Seger Ellis first recorded “Prairie Blues” during Victor’s field trip to Houston in March of 1925, a test recording which was apparently rejected for technical reasons.  He was thereafter invited to Camden to record the version featured here, a re-take made on the same matrix number (though with a “BVE” electric prefix rather than the original “B” acoustic prefix).  One of Ellis’ original compositions, the tune remained in his repertoire for quite a while, and he re-recorded in 1930 for Okeh.  It evidently gained some note in its day, being reprised in Okeh’s 1929 “hillbilly” variety record “The Medicine Show”.

Prairie Blues, recorded August 10, 1925 by Seger Ellis.

On the flip-side, Seger dishes out more of that same rambunctious raggy piano sounding straight out of a little honky-tonk in some Texas oil boom town on his “Sentimental Blues”.  Famed jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith reported said of the piece: “I never thought I’d hear genuine whorehouse piano again!”

Sentimental Blues, recorded August 10, 1925 by Seger Ellis.

Vocalion 1191 – Leroy Carr – 1928

Perhaps the most popular “race” artist of his time, smooth city-slicker Leroy Carr played the blues in a more sophisticated style than his more country counterparts.  Beginning with his “How Long – How Long Blues”, Carr’s music steered the blues away from its rural roots toward a new and more urbane direction, followed by countless budding artists in his wake.

Leroy Carr was born on March 27, 1905 in Nashville, Tennessee, but not long after wound up in Indianapolis to stay.  Carr taught himself to play piano and left to join a traveling circus—then the Army—in his young adulthood, but by 1922, he came back to Indianapolis and settled down with a wife and child.  There, he teamed up with guitarist Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell and gained a reputation for playing the blues at rent parties and nightclubs.  Carr also became a part time bootlegger and a full time alcoholic.  In the summer of 1928, the Vocalion record company traveled to Indianapolis in search of new marketable talent, presenting Carr with the opportunity to make his first record.  Scrapper Blackwell did so first, recording “Kokomo Blues” and “Penal Farm Blues” on June 16, and Carr joined him in the studio three days later to cut “How Long – How Long Blues” and “My Own Lonesome Blues”.  That record turned out to be a smash success, covered even by down home country blues hit maker Blind Lemon Jefferson, and soon Carr was in high demand.  He traveled with Blackwell to Chicago two months later to make more records for his return to the Vocalion studio, with whom he continued to record through 1934.  As one of the best-selling “race” artists, he recorded prolifically, and had another big hit with “Blues Before Sunrise” in 1934, and he also toured successfully with Blackwell.  At the beginning of 1935, Carr switched to Bluebird Records, starting out with the successful “When the Sun Goes Down”, which fast became a blues standard.  Unfortunately, Carr’s alcoholism took its toll on his health, and his habitual drunkenness caused a rift between him and Blackwell, who parted with him acrimoniously in the middle of his first Bluebird session.  That session also turned out to be his last, for Carr soon after fell ill with nephritis and died on April 29, 1935, a little more than a month after his thirtieth birthday.  His legacy was carried on by artists like Bumble Bee Slim and Peetie Wheatstraw, who modeled their careers after his influential piano and guitar style, and in later years by Nat King Cole and Ray Charles, who drew inspiration from his smooth and laid back blues.

Vocalion 1191 was recorded on June 19, 1928 in Indianapolis, Indiana by Leroy Carr, singing and piano, backed by Scrapper Blackwell on guitar.  It was Carr and Blackwell’s first record, together or separately.  This copy was pressed in 1935 or ’36, as indicated by the black and gold “scroll” style label.  It was also reissued on Banner 32557, Oriole 8166, and Romeo 5166.  That it was still for sale nearly a decade after it was originally made—combined with its well-worn condition—present a testament to just how popular this record was.

First, Leroy Carr sings his big hit, the immortal “How Long – How Long Blues”, later covered many times over by countless artists, even breaking out of the blues genre and into jazz, and others.  Though known as a Carr original, the song has its roots in earlier songs, such as Ida Cox and Papa Charlie Jackson’s “How Long, Daddy, How Long?”, and shares a common melody with “Sitting On Top of the World” and its many offshoots.  It’s success was so that Carr followed up with “How Long How Long Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3”, “The New How Long How Long Blues” and “Part 2”, and “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone “.

How Long – How Long Blues, recorded June 19, 1928 by Leroy Carr.

On the reverse, Carr sings “My Own Lonesome Blues”.  As you can probably tell, Sadie must’ve enjoyed it quite a bit—at least until she decided to sell it for ten cents!

My Own Lonesome Blues, recorded June 19, 1928 by Leroy Carr.

Victor V-40028 – Kay Kyser and his Orchestra – 1928

A somber looking Kay Kyser in a promotional photo from the 1930s.

Well before Kay Kyser’s fame as the “Ol’ Perfessor” of his “Kollege of Musical Knowledge” in the swing era of the 1930s and ’40s, he directed a respectable territory dance band out of his home state of North Carolina which recorded three Victor records in the late 1920s; this one is his first.

Kay was born James Kern Kyser in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on June 18, 1905.  He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a cheerleader and theatrical producer.  Though expected to follow in his family’s footsteps of academic achievement, Kyser was persuaded around 1927 by Hal Kemp to take over leadership of his Carolina Club Orchestra at UNC when Kemp went off to strike it big as a bandleader, though he didn’t know a lick about music.  To better perform his band directing duties, he took some clarinet lessons, but mostly “fronted” the band, making use of his exuberant cheerleading skills.  As bandleader, he adopted his middle initial as his professional name, becoming “Kay” Kyser.  After Kyser graduated from UNC in 1928, he took the orchestra touring as a “territory band”, and on November 26th of 1928 and 1929, the band recorded a total of eight sides for Victor in Camden and Chicago, respectively, six of which were released.  In 1933, Hal Kemp recommended Kyser’s band to perform at Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant, a position earlier filled by Coon-Sanders’ Original Nighthawk Orchestra, which proved to be their big break, and they held that gig for several years.  There, Kyser developed the format that was soon to make him famous on radio: the Kollege of Musical Knowledge, with Kay at the helm as the “Ol’ Perfessor”.  The band secured a new recording contract with Brunswick in 1935, and during those years, they were joined by popular vocalists Ginny Simms and Harry Babbitt, as well as cornet player Merwin Bogue, better known as “Ish Kabibble”.  The “Kollege” made its radio debut in 1938 to great popular acclaim, and soon Kyser and the band were starring in motion pictures, beginning with That’s Right—You’re Wrong in 1939.  When the war came on, Kyser and his band got right to entertaining the troops, and once it was through, his popularity endured through the slow demise of the swing era.  Though he continued to have hits in the latter half of the 1940s, the Kollege of Musical Knowledge radio show ended in 1949 and was followed by a brief run on television.  Afterward, Kyser, who had been suffering from arthritis, used the lull as an opportunity to retire from public life.  In his later years, he became involved in Christian Science, to which he had converted in hopes of relieving his arthritis, and served as the denomination’s president in 1983.  At the age of eighty, Kay Kyser died on July 23, 1985 in his home state of North Carolina.

Victor V-40028 was recorded on November 26, 1928 in Camden, New Jersey and issued in the “Native American Melodies” series, as they called their V-40000 series prior to May of 1930, which was usually reserved for “hillbilly” music, but also included some regional dance bands.  Kay Kyser’s orchestra consists of Marion Reed, Frank Fleming, and Charles Kraft on trumpets, George Weatherwax on trombone, John White and Sully Mason on clarinet and alto saxes, Art Walters on clarinet and tenor sax, George Duning and/or Benny Cash on piano, George Sturm on banjo, Bill Rhoads on tuba, and Muddy Berry on drums.

First off, the boys play a peppy fox trot titled “Tell Her (You Really Love Her)”, an original composition by Kyser, Hal James, and Saxie Dowell.  Though not noted as such, the vocalist here sounds to me like reed man Sully Mason.

Tell Her (You Really Love Her), recorded November 26, 1928 by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play their first side recorded, a waltz of Kyser’s own composition: “Broken Dreams of Yesterday”—not bad for a guy with no musical background!

Broken Dreams of Yesterday, recorded November 26, 1928 by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra.

Victor V-40001 – Vaughan Happy Two – 1928

The following record is something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill—by any measure.  But if it’s that so-called “old, weird America” you’re looking for, as Greil Marcus put it, then you’ll hardly find much weirder and older than this.

The musical selections on these two sides are performed by the Vaughan Happy Two, a duo related to the Vaughan Quartet, a popular and prolific sacred singing group, though its members did not sing with the quartet.  The Vaughan Quartet, Happy Two, and several other associated groups were sponsored by the James D. Vaughan Music Company of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee a successful publisher of sacred music, the namesake founder of which also established the Vaughan School of Music in 1911 and radio station WOAN in 1922.  Vaughan’s Quartet first recorded in 1921 and did so extensively thereafter.  Many of their recordings were issued on Vaughan’s own private record label, as well as Victor and Paramount.  The Vaughan Happy Two—Arthur B. Sebren and Cullie G. Wilson—was formed in 1925, and made their first records in 1928, which they followed up with five more sessions between then and 1930, making for a total of four sessions for the Vaughan label and two for Victor, twenty-two sides in all.  Their recorded repertoire included both sacred and secular songs, and their traveling stage act reportedly extended to monologues and musical saw.  The recordings they left behind, at least the ones on this disc, are rather reminiscent of the parlor music from so long ago, an old fashioned style that unsurprisingly proved popular with many rural listeners in the 1920s, longing for simpler times as the modern world rapidly advanced around them.

Victor V-40001 was recorded on October 20, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia.  It is the second release in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” series, as they dubbed their V-40000 rural series prior to May of 1930.  It was probably released early in 1929, and was cut from the catalog in 1930.  The Vaughan Happy Two are tenor C.G. Wilson and baritone A.B. Sebren, accompanied on piano by M.B. Stroud.

They first sing “A Married Man in Trouble”, a song composed by prolific gospel songwriter James Rowe and Vaughan Quartet member Adger M. Pace. Though called the “Happy Two”, this song is quite the opposite (“how sad, how sad”), though indeed it is delivered in good humor.

A Married Man in Trouble, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

On the “B” side, Sebren and Wilson sing “Chicken”, which, while credited to J. Porter Thomason and Charles W. Vaughan, is an adaptation of the old minstrel song “Chicken Don’t Roost Too High for Me”, performed by artists as diverse as Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner and the Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, as “Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon”).

Chicken, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

Nordskog 3004 – Herb Weidoeft’s Famous Orchestra – 1922

The following disc comes from the Old Time Blues Collection’s selection of rare and unusual record labels.  It is one that while seldom encountered holds a unique and important place in the history of the recording industry, and bears a rather unusual, Scandinavian name: Nordskog.

The Nordskog Phonograph Company was founded by Andrae Nordskog in 1921 in Santa Monica, California.  As was emblazoned so proudly on their labels, they were the first  record label based on the United States’ West Coast.  Although their material was recorded locally in Los Angeles, they contracted an East Coast company, The Arto Company, to take care of pressing.  This setup meant they had to ship their wax master from one coast to the other, by railroad.  Unfortunately, many masters didn’t survive the journey.  In spite of their rather makeshift manufacturing process, Nordskog managed to attract some significant talent, including “Queen of Vaudeville” Eva Tanguay and jazz legend Kid Ory and his Sunshine Band, and they had the distinction of producing the first recordings of several notable West Coast dance bands, such as those of Abe Lyman, Henry Halstead, and Herb Wiedoeft.  Others included material by popular East Coast artists like Arthur Fields and Charles Harrison, drawing from Arto’s catalog.  Trouble came in 1923, when Arto went out of business while in possession of all Nordskog’s masters.  The company filed suit for the return of their property, but nothing materialized, and it was all too little and too late for Nordskog, for they too folded soon after, having released little more than fifty records.

Nordskog 3004, the fourth release on the fledgling label, was recorded early in 1922 in Los Angeles, California.  Herb Wiedoeft’s name is misspelled “Weidoeft” on the label.  Although not listed in either Rust’s Jazz and Ragtime Records or American Dance Band Discography, the personnel probably resembles that of Wiedoeft’s recordings for Brunswick the following year, which featured Herb Wiedoeft on trumpet, Joseph Nemoli on cornet and viola, Jesse Stafford on trombone and baritone horn, Larry Abbott, Gene Siegrist, and Fred Bibesheimer on reeds (clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, and oboe), Vincent Rose on piano, Jose Sucedo on banjo, Guy Wiedoeft on tuba and string bass, and, Adolph Wiedoeft on drums and xylophone.

First up, they play a nicely orchestrated rendition of the popular 1922 jazz hit, “Virginia Blues”, perhaps most famously recorded by Ladd’s Black Aces featuring the recording debut of Cliff Edwards.

Virginia Blues, recorded in 1922 by Herb Weidoeft’s [sic] Famous Orchestra.

On the “B” side, they play Nacio Herb Brown and Gene Rose’s oriental fox trot “Persian Nights”.  This appears to be the only version of this tune to have been recorded.

Persian Nights, recorded in 1922 by Herb Weidoeft’s [sic] Famous Orchestra.