Okeh 8300 – Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – 1926

Louis Armstrong around the age of nineteen, circa 1920. Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.

As the anniversary of the day the great Louis Armstrong was born rolls around once again, it’s come time to commemorate the occasion with another page from musical history.  Previously, we’ve examined his theme song, his original Hot Five’s last recordings, and his 1933 European tour.  Now let us turn our attention to an earlier point in old Satchel Mouth’s illustrious career, toward one of the most memorable records from his first endeavor as the leader of a band.

After Louis Armstrong parted ways with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1924, he was invited to New York City for a seat in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, the top black dance band in operation, making his first records with them on October 7, 1924.  He remained with Henderson for only a year, but in that time helped produce some of the band’s greatest musical successes.  Thereafter, he returned to Chicago and started up a band of his own: the Hot Five, featuring the extraordinary talents of Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, and his wife Lil, sometimes joined by guests like Lonnie Johnson.  He secured a contract with Okeh Records, for whom he had recorded as a member of Oliver’s Jazz Band, and the Hot Five made their first three recordings on November 12, 1925.  In addition to his bandleading, Armstrong also worked as something of a staff trumpeter at Okeh, often backing blues singers like Bertha “Chippie” Hill.  Though his contract forbade him from making records under his own name on other labels, he occasionally made clandestine ventures to other companies; the Hot Five cut one record for Vocalion as “Lill’s Hot Shots”, and Armstrong sat in for a session with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra.  Nonetheless, his contract proved to be quite fruitful, for Armstrong remained on Okeh’s roster—sometimes expanding the Hot Five to the Hot Seven, and later fronting full-fledged orchestras—until the middle of 1932, at which point he left the faltering label in favor of recording for Victor, which had managed to stay afloat as the Great Depression took its heavy toll on the record companies.

Okeh 8300 was recorded on February 26, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, at the Armstrong’s Hot Five’s third session.  The Hot Five is its original lineup of Louis Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Armstrong on piano, and Johnny St. Cyr on six-string banjo.

First up is “Heebie Jeebies”, most certainly the definitive version of this tune, which we last heard played by Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra.  Armstrong’s recording of this popular jazz tune is frequently cited as one of the most influential early examples of scat singing.  According to Richard M. Jones, Armstrong’s famous scat chorus began because his lyric sheet fell off his music stand and he couldn’t remember the words.  That story is likely pure fiction, though Armstrong did blurt out “I done forgot the words” in his scat chorus on his 1930 recording of “(I’m a) Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas”.

Heebie Jeebies, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

Next up is the the first ever recording of Kid Ory’s hot jazz standard, “Muskrat Ramble” (sometimes titled “Muskat Ramble”, and occasionally “Muskrat Scramble”, which I imagine as quite a terrible egg dish).

Muskrat Ramble, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

Victor 19813 – Carl T. Sprague – 1925

It’s come time we heard again from one of my favorite cowboy singers: Carl T. Sprague.  This is a record that I’ve had since my earliest days of collecting, one of about a hundred that I inherited from my great-great-grandfather.  As such, it’s been in my family since its original purchase in 1925.  Like many of that bunch however, the condition leaves something to be desired.  I’ve been searching fruitlessly for a replacement copy for some time, but as of yet no cigar.  (If you happen to have a copy you’re looking to get rid of, let’s talk.)  It escaped my interest for a long while after it arrived in my possession; before I’d listened to it, I assumed it was just a run of the early vocal record like all the Henry Burr and John Steel and whatnot that the old folks seemed so fond of.  Once it finally made its way onto my turntable, I realized I had been missing out.  It piqued my interest in old folk music and introduced me to Carl T. Sprague.  I later delved deeper to uncover more about the history of both songs, and became even more enthralled.  Suffice to say, it’s since become one of my favorite folk music records.  Both songs were popular comical songs in the second half of the nineteenth century, and both were scarcely recorded in the next century.  Though Sprague is credited on the labels as composer of both sides, the songs actually predate his birth by quite a few years.  Both were originally published on broadside song sheets, as was common practice in the several centuries preceding 1900.

Victor 19813 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on August 3 and 5, 1925.  It was released in December of that year, and cut from the catalog in 1928.  They are among the earliest electrical recordings made, only a few months after Victor introduced their new process.  The Discography of American Historical Recordings notes that Victor’s “Special Booklet 1925” as a source.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s possible that this record never saw widespread release.  Obviously staples of his repertoire, Sprague re-recorded both these sides in 1972 for his eponymous LP.

First, is Sprague’s first recorded side, “Kisses”, a song which dates back to the days of broadside song sheets.  It was originally published in 1882 as “Sock Her on Her Kisser”.  Another version was recorded in 1941 by Lewis Winfield Moody for the Library of Congress by Robert F. Draves, under the title “Everybody Has a Finger in the Pie”.  Chubby Parker of WLS recorded “The Kissing Song” in 1931, which may be a version of the same song, but having never heard it, I cannot confirm.  Canadian folklorist MacEdward Leach collected a version of the song as “Turtle Dove” in Newfoundland in 1951.  The DAHR makes note that a re-make (take “5”) of “Kisses” was recorded on June 22, 1926; this take appears to be the originally issued one (“3”).  Sprague’s 1972 re-recording of the song was titled “Kissing”.

Kisses, recorded August 3, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings another popular humorous ditty titled “The Club Meeting”, also known as “I’ve Only Been Down to the Club”, seemingly the first of only a very few recordings of the song.  Like the previous, this song was originally published on a broadside; it appears to have been originally published by E.H. Harding of New York in 1876, words and music by Joseph P. Skelly, also known for the memorable 1884 song “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother”, recorded by Vernon Dalhart and others.  Al Hopkins’ Buckle Busters (a.k.a. Hill Billies) recorded the song as “Down to the Club” in 1927 for Brunswick, the lyrics to which were transcribed and printed in the songbook “The Roaming Cowboy”, Book No. 2, published by the “border blaster” radio station XEPN of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico in the mid-to-late 1930s.  Another version was sung by Sam Bell of Tuolumne County, California for the Library of Congress in 1939, recorded by Sidney Cowell Robertson.  Additional recordings were made by Walter Coon for Gennett in 1930 as “The Club Had a Meeting” and Billy Vest for Columbia in 1931 as “The Club Held a Meeting”, but neither were released.  (And my apologies for the label butchery, you can thank my great-great-grandfather’s fondness for writing numbers all over his records and my own attempt to get the junk off.)

The Club Meeting, recorded August 5, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.

Columbia 15038-D – Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers – 1925

Unquestionably one of the foremost names in “old-time” music during the 1920s, as well as one of the leading figures in the development of what would become “country music” is the original North Carolina Rambler: Charlie Poole.

Charlie Clay Poole hailed from Randolph County, North Carolina, in the town of Franklinville, where he was born on March 22, 1892, the son of an Irish immigrant.   As did his parents before him, Charlie went to work in a textile mill, but his real interest was in making music.  Unable to afford a proper instrument, he fashioned his first banjo out of a gourd.  As the result of a childhood incident in which he bet friends that he could catch a baseball without wearing a mitt, he learned to play the instrument in a unique three-fingered style of picking.  In addition to his musical proclivities, Poole also had a reputation as a rounder and hell raiser supreme.  After years toiling away his youth in the mill, Poole saved up enough money to purchase a Gibson banjo, then quit his job to pursue a career as a musician.  Joined by his brother-in-law Posey Rorer, who played fiddle, and a host of other local musicians, he entertained at local functions.  With the addition of guitarist Norman Woodlieff, the trio traveled to New York City in July of 1925 to make their first records for Columbia as the “North Carolina Ramblers”, producing four sides for which they received seventy-five dollars pay.  Their first record turned out to be a hit, and Poole, along with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, helped to make Columbia into a powerhouse of old-time music in the genre’s earliest years on record, and he was one of the best-selling artists in their “Old Familiar Tunes” series.  Thereafter, the North Carolina Ramblers returned to New York once a year—twice in 1930—to make further records, with two excursions to Paramount and Brunswick on the side, ultimately resulting in a total of eighty sides cut, of which all but ten were released.  Membership within the band changed as years passed; Woodlieff was replaced with former railroad engineer Roy Harvey, and Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith came to take Rorer’s place, but Charlie Poole always remained constant as the North Carolina Ramblers’ nucleus and main attraction (though members of the group did make several records without him).  Aside from recording, the North Carolina Ramblers also toured Vaudeville and appeared on radio around the Appalachian region.  After his last recording session, Poole and band were invited to Hollywood to provide music for a Western movie in 1931.  Unfortunately, before leaving for the west, Poole suffered a heart attack and died at the age of thirty-nine on May 21, 1931.

Columbia 15038-D was recorded on July 27, 1925 in New York, New York.  Sales figures have been reported as an astounding 102,451 copies.  It is Charlie Poole’s first released record, consisting of his third and fourth recorded sides.  The North Carolina Ramblers are Posey Rorer on fiddle, Norman Woodlieff on guitar, and of course Poole on the banjo.

First, Poole sings what could probably be considered the definitive recording of the old folk song “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister”.

Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play the classic “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues”—my personal favorite of the North Carolina Ramblers’ recordings—referring to the card game called “Georgia skin”, a game of chance popular in the South in those days, both for playing and singing about.

Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

Okeh 8480 – Sylvester Weaver – 1927

Blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver bears the tremendous distinction of not only being an outstanding musician, but also a pioneer in the field of recorded blues, with his historic records impressing on artists so far and wide as Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.

Sylvester Weaver was born on July 25 in either 1896 or ’97, in Louisville, Kentucky.  Most details surrounding his early life are lost to the march of time, but it is quite conceivable that he might have been involved in the rich jug band culture surrounding Louisville, which included groups led by Earl McDonald and Buford Threlkeld, better known as Whistler.  In 1923, he traveled to New York City with blues singer and fellow Louisvillian Sara Martin, who had been recording successfully for Okeh Records since the previous year.  With Martin, Weaver recorded on October 24, 1923 what may have been the earliest vocal blues backed by a single guitar.  He followed with his own first solo record the next month: the instrumentals “Guitar Rag” and “Guitar Blues”, which some suggest comprise the first country blues record by a male artist; though that position is contested, they probably are the earliest solo “country” blues guitar instrumentals, and they without question made an indelible mark on musical history.  Weaver ultimately recorded twenty-five or twenty-six sides between 1923 and ’25, sometimes in New York, sometimes in St. Louis and Atlanta when Okeh made field trips to those cities, before taking a hiatus from his recording career.  His triumphant return came in April of 1927, when he returned to New York with Sara Martin once again to make another series of records.  He continued to record throughout the rest of that year, sometimes joined by fellow guitarist Walter Beasley, and often in accompaniment of singers like Martin or Helen Humes, as well as waxing a few vocal takes of his own.  But in spite of his recording success, at the end of 1927, Sylvester Weaver returned home to Louisville, soon fading back behind the same veil of obscurity that surrounded his early years, and he died there on April 4, 1960.

Okeh 8480 was recorded on April 13 and 12, 1927, respectively, in New York City.  It was released that September.  Both sides are instrumental guitar solos by Sylvester Weaver.

Firstly, Weaver plays his famous “Guitar Rag”, his second recording of the signature piece—the original having been made in 1923—that would later form the basis for Leon McAuliffe’s even more famous “Steel Guitar Rag” as recorded by Bob Wills in 1936.

Guitar Rag, recorded April 13, 1927 by Sylvester Weaver.

On the rather unusually titled rag piece “Damfino Stump”, Weaver plays six-string banjo-guitar, lending to a rather Papa Charlie Jackson-esque sound.  One wonders if perhaps it was meant to be titled “Stomp” rather than “Stump”, though I prefer the latter, personally.

Damfino Stump, recorded April 12, 1927 by Sylvester Weaver.

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.