Okeh 45317 – W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith – 1929

One of the truly outstanding acts of old-time music was the fiddle and guitar duo of Narmour and Smith, who were quite comparable—both in style and ability—to the Stripling Brothers of Alabama, personally I’d even go so far as to venture that I might like these two better.

The pair was made up of William Thomas Narmour, the fiddler, and Shellie Walton Smith, who played the guitar.  Narmour was born on March 22, 1889 and Smith on November 28, 1895, both in Carroll County, Mississippi, where they spent most of their lives.  Narmour learned his craft as a boy, on a fiddle fashioned for him by his father—also a fiddler—from a cigar box.  He joined forces with Smith, his neighbor, to provide music at local functions.  When Smith was unavailable, Narmour sometimes with the local blues musician Mississippi John Hurt.  At a 1927 fiddle contest in Winona, Narmour and Smith were discovered by record dealer, talent scout, and veterinarian Dr. A.M. Bailey, who referred them to the Okeh company to cut a record.  Thus, they traveled some hundred miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first six sides on February 15, 1928.  Those first thee discs proved a considerable success, and so the duo returned to the recording microphone the following year, this time traveling a longer distance to Atlanta, Georgia.  That session resulted in one of the most successful “hillbilly” records of the time, a two-sider featuring “Charleston No. 1” and “Carroll County Blues”.  Its popularity was so that six months later Narmour and Smith took a train all the way to New York City, where they put down another eight tunes on two September days, plus an appearance on Okeh’s “Medicine Show”, a musical skit record much like those made by the Skillet Lickers.  They concluded their Okeh engagement in 1930, with two sessions in San Antonio, Texas.  After four years of recording silence, Narmour and Smith returned to Atlanta for one final marathon session, this time for Bluebird, who had also poached the talents of fellow old-time stars Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers for their respective last recordings.  In all, the duo of W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith left behind a recorded legacy of nearly fifty sides.  Both Narmour and Smith remained in their native Carroll County for the rest of their lives, living primarily as farmers, and later finding work at the local school as a bus driver and janitor, respectively.  Narmour also operated a garage in Avalon.  Willie Narmour died on March 24, 1961, two days after his seventy-second birthday.  Shell Smith followed him seven years later on August 28, 1968.

Okeh 45317 was recorded March 11, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia by W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith, at their second session.  Narmour playing the fiddle, and Smith on guitar.  Unfortunately, this junk store copy is quite worn; both sides play fairly well for the first two-thirds or so, becoming quite crackly toward their ends (such that if I tried to clean them up, I’d surely lose my mind).  Nevertheless, both sides still put out a strong signal over the crackle.

“Charleston No. 1”, as its name would suggest, was the first in a series of “Charlestons” played by Narmour and Smith, up to “No. 3”.  They later re-recorded the three “Charlestons” for Bluebird in 1934 titled as “The New Charleston”.  The number is said to take its name from Charleston, Mississippi, rather than the popular dance or the likewise named cities in South Carolina or West Virginia.

Charleston No. 1, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Narmour and Smith’s famous “Carroll County Blues” is a sublime performance, a prime example of just how these two really could get right.  Like with the previous number, they later followed up “Carroll County Blues No. 2” and “No. 3”, and re-made all three for Bluebird as “New Carroll County Blues”.

Carroll County Blues, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

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.