Vocalion 15078 – Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra – 1925

Leading a pioneering jazz band on the West Coast, Texas-born pianist Sonny Clay is often credited with spreading jazz music to Australia by way of an ill-fated 1927 tour.

William Roger Campbell Clay, son of William and Lizzie Clay, was born on May 15, 1899, in the small east Texas town of Chappell Hill.  After spending his early childhood in Houston, the Clays relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, when he was nine years old.  It was in that state where the young “Sonny” began his career in music, learning first to play the drums and xylophone, before graduating to playing piano in early jazz groups of the western desert.  In 1916, he continued westward to California, where he would soon make his name.  In the west, he played with Kid Ory and Reb Spikes, and he encountered Jelly Roll Morton in Tijuana around 1920.  By 1922, he had established his own jazz band in Los Angeles, known originally as the Eccentric Harmony Six.  In 1923, his group made one disc for the West Coast-based Sunset label as the “California Poppies”, and a year later Clay waxed two piano solos for the Triumph label.  It was 1926 however, that brought the Clay his most fruitful recording endeavor in the form of a contract with Vocalion.  Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra cut one record at each of four sessions between that year and 1927, as well as an additional four unissued sides from the last.  In 1928, he embarked with his band, including future Duke Ellington vocalist Ivey Anderson, now billed as “Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea”, for a tour of Australia—perhaps making them the earliest American band to bring jazz to their shores.  Though initially finding great success down under, Clay’s tour ultimately ended with a press scandal alleging that the African-American musicians were hosting wild parties rife with drug-crazed interracial sexual abandon, ultimately resulting in their deportation and a subsequent ban on black musicians entering the country which lasted until 1954.  Back in the United States, Clay organized a new orchestra in Los Angeles, playing at the Vernon Country Club.  In the late 1920s and first years of the 1930s, Clay’s Hartford Ballroom Orchestra waxed several discs for his own “Sonny Clay” vanity label (one of which also appeared on Champion), but as the Great Depression progressed, he eventually dissolved his band to work as a soloist for the remainder of the decade.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Clay enlisted in the United States Army, serving as a musician.  Following the War’s end, he sometimes found employment as a piano tuner and postal worker, but continued to work sporadically as a professional musician, into the 1960s, including one final recording session in 1960.  Sonny Clay died on April 10, 1973, in Los Angeles.

Vocalion 15078 was recorded on July 28, 1925, in Los Angeles, California.  The Plantation Orchestra consists of Ernest Coycault on trumpet, W. B. “Woody” Woodman on trombone, Leonard Davidson on clarinet, Sonny Clay on piano, one Fitzgerald (whose first name is unknown) on banjo, and Willie McDaniel on drums and kazoo.

On the first side, Clay’s boys play “Jambled Blues”, in my sincerest opinion one of the brightest shining examples of mid-1920s West Coast jazz excellence ever recorded.

Jambled Blues, recorded July 28, 1925 by Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra.

On the reverse, they dish out some of the same hot stuff on “Bogloosa Blues”, sharing a composer’s credit with fellow West Coast bandleader Herb Wiedoeft.

Bogloosa Blues, recorded July 28, 1925 by Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra.

Victor 19427 – Vernon Dalhart – 1924/1925

Producing many of the earliest “country” music hit records in the wake of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s unexpected success, Texas-born, city-bred Vernon Dalhart has been the subject of some controversy as to his merits and authenticity, but if Jimmie Rodgers be the “father” of country music, and Uncle Dave Macon the grandfather, then surely the polished, classically trained Vernon Dalhart must be some great-uncle.

Vernon Dalhart, pictured in the Victor catalog.

Marion Try Slaughter II was born on April 6, 1883, in the east Texas town of Jefferson, the son of Bob and Mary Jane Slaughter.  When he was ten, his father was killed by his uncle in a dispute, and he later moved with his mother to Dallas.  In his teenage years, he spent some time as a cowhand in west Texas for a summer job.  Aspiring to sing opera, Try studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music, then set out for New York to strike it big.  Deeming “Try Slaughter” an unsuitable name for an operatic tenor, he instead adopted the name of two west Texas towns for his stage name: “Vernon Dalhart”.  Soon, he began recording professionally for Edison and other record companies, mostly singing popular songs of the day.  In the dawning days of “country” music on records, Dalhart got wind of Henry Whitter’s 1923 recording of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97”, and brought the tune to the attention of the Edison company.  He recorded the song for Thomas Edison on May 14, 1924, and then set about doing it again for Victor.  Victor bigwig Nat Shilkret agreed to record the song on the condition that Dalhart produce a suitable number for the “B” side.  He obliged in the form on “The Prisoner’s Song”, adapted from an old folk song he had heard from his cousin Guy Massey.  For the session, Dalhart was paired with Victor staff whistler and guitarist Carson Robison and violinist Lou Raderman.  Billed on the label as “mountaineer’s songs”, the resulting record sold a reported seven million copies, notwithstanding Dalhart’s remakes on other labels.  The runaway success relaunched the singer’s career as a “hillbilly” singer, and, teamed with Robison, he continued to find success singing disaster songs and weepy ballads like “Death of Floyd Collins” until the end of the decade.  Following a series of disagreements regarding royalties and Dalhart’s replacement of fiddler Murray Kellner with his friend Adelyne Hood, Robison broke away from the act to strike out on his own.  In the decade that followed, Robison’s success grew while Dalhart’s waned.  By 1930, his stream of successful songs had gone dry, and he recorded only sporadically through that decade.  He made his final recordings in 1939, with a group called the Big Cypress Boys, drawing their name from a bayou back home in Jefferson, Texas.  Afterward, he retired from professional performance and began coaching voice in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before going on to a number of non-musical odd jobs until his death from a heart attack on September 14, 1948.

Two different versions of Victor 19427 were made, the first was recorded acoustically on August 13, 1924, which was re-made electrically on March 18 of the following year, both session in New York City.  For both versions, Dalhart is accompanied by Carson Robison on guitar, Lou Raderman on violin, and his own harmonica.  Both the acoustical and electrical versions are posted herein, in that respective order.  In the interest of unnecessarily full disclosure, the media featured in this post is sourced from three different copies of the record, one for the acoustical takes, one for the electrical takes, and one for the labels (as neither of the transferred copies have particularly presentable labels).

On the first side of his big hit record, Dalhart rather joyfully sings of disaster and death on Henry Whitter’s “Wreck of the Old 97”, one of the most popular railroad songs ever made.  Regardless of questions of Dalhart’s authenticity as a folk singer, I would posit that these songs are indubitably a part of Americana.

Wreck of the Old 97, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.

Following Dalhart’s introduction, “The Prisoner’s Song” became one of the biggest hits of the 1920s, inspiring numerous covers, dance band arrangements, organ solos, and translations into Spanish, Italian, Polish, and other languages.  Dalhart himself recorded the song a number of times, and it remained widely known and recorded into the 1950s.  In spite of Dalhart’s copyrighting the song in his cousin’s name, some accounts suggest that the finished product was mostly a result of Nat Shilkret’s re-arrangement, and Shilkret in later years spoke of the song as “the one that guy stole from me.”

The Prisoner’s Song, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.

Victor 19699 – Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler” – 1925

Though he left behind only a single record of his music—which, in my learned opinion, is among perhaps the top ten best old-time fiddle records ever made—”The Texas Fiddler” from Fort Worth, Moses J. Bonner, earned recognition in his home state and abroad as one of the finest men to ever pull a bow south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Moses Junior Bonner was born in Franklin County, Alabama, on March 1, 1847.  The family moved west to the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, when he was about seven years of age.  It was there that Bonner, as a child, learned to play fiddle from an older black musician in the area.  Following the death of his father, M.M. Bonner, the family pressed farther west on past Fort Worth, where they settled in Parker County.  At the outbreak of the war between the states, Bonner served in the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Company E, as a courier under Colonel William Henry Parsons.  After the war, he eventually settled in Fort Worth.  A prominent member of the United Confederate Veterans, Bonner participated in a fiddle contest sponsored by the organization in 1901, losing to fellow veteran Henry C. Gilliland, but becoming a founding member of the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.  He continued to be active at both veterans’ and fiddlers’ functions in the decades to come, both lobbying for congress to pass pensions for Confederate veterans and winning nine of twelve subsequent fiddle contests in which he participated.  He was also well known at said get-togethers for his lively jig dancing.  In 1911, he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts at the world’s championship contest.  On January 4 1923, Bonner participated in the first known radio “barn dance” program on WBAP in Fort Worth, accompanied by a local string band called the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  Two years later, when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their equipment down to Houston for their first field recording session in Texas, Bonner waxed two sides—one record—of fiery fiddle medleys, for which he promoted as “The Texas Fiddler”.  Bonner was the only “old-time” musician to participate in the field trip, which otherwise recorded only the dance orchestras of Lloyd Finlay and “Fatty” Martin.  Despite further sessions in Texas over the years that followed, Bonner never recorded again.  He did, however, remain an active participant in Confederate reunions all around the nation, ultimately achieving the honorary rank of Major General.  At the age of ninety-two, Moses J. Bonner died from pneumonia on September 2, 1939.

Victor 19699 was recorded on March 17, 1925, at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.  Bonner’s fiddling is accompanied on harp-guitar by Fred Wagoner of WBAP’s Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  The record was released later in the year, and sold only until sometime in 1926, perhaps only seeing regional sales.

Firstly, Bonner fiddles a medley of “Yearling’s in the Canebrake” and “The Gal on the Log”.  Seventy-eight-years-old at the time of recording, Bonner was by no means lacking in energy on these performances.

1. Yearling’s in the Canebrake 2. The Gal On the Log, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

On the flip, he plays an interpolation of “Dusty Miller” and “‘Ma’ Ferguson”—the latter honoring the first female governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson, who had assumed office only the preceding January.  The “wide-open” character heard in this performance and the other are perfectly exemplary, in my opinion, of early Texas fiddling, sounding far more at home on the range or prairie than than the mountain hollers of the eastern hills.

1. Dusty Miller 2. “Ma” Ferguson, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

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.

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.

Since original publication, I was finally able to procure a near mint copy of this record upgrading from my previously rather lacking one, so I have updated the audio and label scans accordingly.

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 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.

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