President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930s. As pictured in Man’s Advancing Civilization, 1934.
On March 4, 1933, former Governor of New York Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated thirty-second President of the United States of America, having won the election of 1932 by a wide margin. Following more than a decade of Republican control, Roosevelt ushered in an era of liberal Democrat presidencies (most of them his own) that would last nearly twenty years. His marked the last inauguration to be held on that date, as the twentieth amendment to the United States Constitution had been ratified earlier in the year, moving the event to its current January 20th date. Over the preceding winter, the Great Depression had driven the United States’ economy to its lowest depths, with unemployment rated peaking at almost twenty-five percent. President Hoover, to his credit, was trying in his own way to stimulate recovery, but his efforts proved rather slow to work at best. Roosevelt offered America a New Deal, and he delivered it. Mere months after assuming office, Roosevelt got right on it, pushing passage of his first “alphabet soup” New Deal programs, including the TVA, the CCC, the PWA, and the NRA, soon to be followed by the WPA, the FSA, and others. Granted, Roosevelt’s New Deal was far from a perfect be-all and end-all solution, some programs worked better than others, some were pretty poorly conceived, but they did provide a “Band-Aid” (to quote a former history professor of mine) to the economic ruin, and give thousands of men a job.—and ol’ FDR proved popular enough to be re-elected an unprecedented three times.
Perfect 15754 was recorded in New York on March 16, 1933 (less than two weeks after Roosevelt’s inauguration) and March 4, 1930 (exactly three years prior to the inauguration), respectively. The personnel of the Gene’s Merrymakers side includes Bunny Berigan on trumpet, bandleader Gene Kardos on alto sax, and Sam Weiss on drums. The Hollywood Dance Orchestra is a pseudonym for Adrian Schubert’s Salon Orchestra, which may include Bob Effros on trumpet, Miff Mole on trombone, Tony Parenti on clarinet and alto sax, and Charlie Magnante on accordion. The identities of the remainders of both bands (pianos, basses, etc.) are unknown.
The 1929 song “Happy Days are Here Again”—originally featured in the 1930 M-G-M motion picture Chasing Rainbows—became associated with F.D.R. when his staff made the impromptu decision to play it at the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. After that, it became his official campaign song, and thereafter became indelibly associated with New Deal Democrats. In apparent celebration of Roosevelt’s election, the American Record Corporation opted not to reissue Vincent Lopez’s January, 1930 recording of the song (a rather odd, highly syncopated rendition with a “Lopez speaking” introduction which would have sounded somewhat dated a whole three years later), but rather to record a very jubilant new version, albeit a stock arrangement, played by Gene Kardos’ excellent New York-based dance orchestra, with a vocal by studio guy Dick Robertson.
Happy Days are Here Again, recorded March 16, 1933 by Gene’s Merrymakers.
In keeping with the Rooseveltian theme, the reverse features “The Stein Song (University of Maine)”, no doubt celebrating Roosevelt’s promised repeal of the much reviled eighteenth amendment. Irving Kaufman sings the vocals on this 1930 reissued side.
The Stein Song (University of Maine), recorded March 4, 1930 by Hollywood Dance Orchestra.
Few songs in the vast and diverse country blues tradition have had such an enduring impact, and few melodies known such ubiquity, as the Mississippi Sheiks’ legendary 1930 recording of “Sitting On Top of the World”. Yet in spite of its great import, the song’s origins are quite obscure. Thus, I endeavor herein to unravel the tangled roots of one of America’s greatest blues songs. I do ask that if you readers have any greater insight into the song’s history than I have to offer, please let me in on it by commenting on this post.
The Mississippi Sheiks were a versatile country string band with a repertoire consisting of everything from deep plantation blues melodies to the latest Tin Pan Alley pop hits. Though its personnel varied from session to session, core members were Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and Walter Vinson on guitar. Sometimes, they were joined by other Chatmon brothers Sam and Armenter—better known as Bo Carter—or mandolin player Papa Charlie McCoy, brother of Kansas Joe McCoy. The Chatmon family of Bolton, Mississippi had a venerable musical history in the region. Patriarch Henderson Chatmon, born into slavery around 1850, was a fiddle player, and he passed his legacy of music on to his sons Lonnie, Bo, Sam, Harry, and reputedly Charley Patton by a different mother. Lonnie Chatmon was born either in June of 1888 or on November 8, 1890. He provided the heart of the Sheiks as their main fiddle player, remaining ever-present through all the Sheiks sessions and varying membership. Guitar picker Walter Vinson, sometimes called Vincent or Vincson, and credited pseudonymously as Walter Jacobs, was born on February 2, 1901, also in Bolton. Prior to becoming a Mississippi Sheik, he played alongside such noted talents as Charlie Spand, Rube Lacey, and the aforementioned Papa Charlie McCoy. He made his first records with Bo Carter for Brunswick in 1928, also Carter’s first.
Following in the footsteps of similar Bo Carter and Walter Vinson groups of 1928 and ’29, the Mississippi Sheiks had their first recording session in Shreveport, Louisiana in February of 1930 for Okeh, and continued to record exclusively for them through 1931, with several of their records released in the 45000 “hillbilly” series rather than the 8000 “race” series, and their two final discs appearing on the parent label Columbia. While at Okeh, the Sheiks accompanied “Texas” Alexander in a single San Antonio session. Meanwhile, offshoot groups such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Mississippi Blacksnakes, both featuring Charlie McCoy, cut several records for Okeh and Brunswick. Thereafter, they traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to make a series of records for the faltering Paramount label in July of ’32 before returning to Okeh in ’33 for a single session while the record industry was in dire straits. The following year, they signed with RCA Victor’s new up-and-comer Bluebird, with whom they remained until their final session in 1935. Lonnie cut several more records for Bluebird late in 1936 with brother Sam Chatmon, who had participated in a handful of earlier Sheiks sessions, before calling it quits.
After the days of the Mississippi Sheiks had drawn to a close in the middle of the 1930s, the Chatmons, excepting Bo, quit music and returned to a life as farmers. Lonnie Chatmon died around 1942 of ’43. Walter Vinson and Bo Carter continued to enjoy solo recording careers into the 1940s. Bo Carter made some (as yet unreleased) final recordings for Paul Oliver in 1960 with Will Shade and Dewey Corley of the Memphis Jug Band, and died four years later at the age of 71. Walter Vinson too returned to music in 1960, making a rather more successful comeback than Carter, before retiring for the last time in 1972, owing to atherosclerosis, three years before his death. Sam Chatmon spent many years working on plantations in Mississippi before the folk revival of the 1960s brought him back to the spotlight with great success, dying at the age of 86 in 1983.
Okeh 8784 was recorded at the Mississippi Sheiks’ first session on February 17, 1930 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Sheiks are Walter Vinson (a.k.a. Walter Jacobs) on guitar and vocal, Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle, and on the second side, Bo Carter on second guitar. It is the Sheiks’ second issued record.
Without a doubt the Sheiks’ greatest success—then as now—is “Sitting on Top of the World”. The Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon accredited composition has subsequently been covered by dozens, if not hundreds of artists, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. After proving to be one of the biggest “race” hits of 1930, the Sheiks followed up with “Sitting on Top of the World No. 2” (Okeh 8854) in 1931 and “The New Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Paramount 13134) in ’32. Bearing no resemblance to the 1926 popular song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” besides its title, the unmistakable melody of “Sitting on Top of the World”, or a very similar one, was used by quite a number of recordings prior to the Sheiks’ 1930 waxing.
Where exactly and from whom the melody originated is considerably more difficult to pin down than simply citing some of the many songs to use it. Walter Vinson claimed to have written the song after playing for a white dance. Ida Cox recorded “How Long, Daddy, How Long” in 1925 with a like melody, accompanied by Papa Charlie Jackson, the composer credited as “W.H. Jackson”. Leroy Carr made that song famous three years later with his influential “How Long – How Long Blues”, and reused the melody in his “You Got to Reap What You Sow” only two months later. Some have suggested that the Sheiks were introduced to the melody by way of Tampa Red and a song he recorded several times called “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, however I am dubious of that possibility. The earliest recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” was cut on January 17, 1931 by one “Sam Hill” from Louisville—apparently a pseudonym for Walter Vinson—for Brunswick records, at the same session as the Sheiks’ offshoot the Mississippi Blacksnakes. Tampa Red made his first recording of the song the following month, with the composer credited as “Sam Hill”. The Sheiks themselves recorded the song later in that year. However, prior to every recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, the Atlanta-based fiddler Eddie Anthony recorded the very similar “Everything’s Coming My Way” with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”. To 1941 Sam Price and his Texas Bluesiscians recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” perplexingly credits Bert Johnson and Spencer Williams as composers.
Contemporaneous to the Sheik’s “Stitting On Top of the World”, a version was cut by Charley Patton, an associate of the Sheiks, only a few months after theirs under the title “Some Summer Day”. Big Bill Broonzy used the popular melody in his two-parter “Worrying You Off My Mind” in 1932, and Robert Johnson too echoed it in his 1936 “Come On in My Kitchen”. Milton Brown introduced the tune into the Western swing repertoire with his 1934 recording titled “Just Sitting on Top of the World”, which was in turn covered by Bob Wills and others.
Sitting on Top of the World, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
Though a little worse for wear, owing to a touch of groove stripping, the Sheiks give us some more of their good stuff, with Bo Carter sitting in, on the less well-remembered, but nonetheless excellent “Lonely One In this Town”.
Lonely One In this Town, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
The Delmore Brothers, Rabon and Alton, as pictured on a WLS Grand Ole Opry publication, circa 1935.
Now what we have here is a good old-fashioned split release; one artist on one side, a different one on the other. Not just any old split release though, these two sides happen to contain a couple of the hottest hillbilly performances of the Depression years. Two of my own personal favorites at least.
Bluebird B-5403 was recorded on December 6, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois, and November 22, 1930 in Memphis, Tennessee, respectively, and was released on April 4, 1934. The two sides also appeared together on Montgomery Ward M-4750. The Delmore Brothers are Alton on guitar and Rabon on tenor guitar, vocals by both; the Allen Brothers are Austin on tenor banjo and vocals and Lee on guitar and kazoo.
The Delmore Brothers were born into a family of poor farmers in Elkmont, Alabama—first Alton on Christmas Day in 1908, then Rabon on December 3, 1916. Their mother Mollie wrote and sang church songs, and soon Alton joined, publishing his first song with his mother in 1925. They started out their musical career singing at local fiddle contests, and cut their first record for Columbia on October 28, 1931 in Atlanta. Two years later, they secured a contract with RCA Victor’s Bluebird records, and spot on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. They found their greatest success as Opry members, playing alongside Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Uncle Dave Macon, and remained on the show until a dispute in 1939. After parting ways, they continued to The Delmores switched to the King label in 1944, shortly after the label’s inception, with whom they had some of their greatest record successes, including “Freight Train Boogie” in 1946 with harmonica player Wayne Raney, and “Blues Stay Away from Me” in 1949. The Delmore Brothers’ career ended with Rabon’s early death from lung cancer on December 4, 1952. Alton lived on for twelve more years, dying of a heart attack on June 8, 1964.
First up, from their first Bluebird session, Alton and Rabon Delmore sing and play up a real masterpiece on their spectacular and widely imitated hit composition “Brown’s Ferry Blues”, one of twelve sides recorded that day. The Delmores followed up two years later with “Brown’s Ferry Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3” two years after that, and re-recorded the popular tune all the way in 1946 for King Records.
Brown’s Ferry Blues, recorded December 6, 1933 by the Delmore Brothers.
Not to be confused with the Australian duo of the late 1960s, the Allen Brothers—Austin, born February 7, 1901, and Lee, born June 1, 1906—originated from Sewanee, Tennessee, and got their start in music playing in medicine shows and coal mining towns. Sometimes called the “Chattabooga Boys” for their frequent references to the Tennessee town, the duo made their first records for Columbia in April of 1927, and followed up with two further sessions for them until one of their records was mistakenly issued in their 14000-D “race” series rather than the 15000-D “Old Familiar Tunes” series, which seems to have offended the pair, because they threatened to bring a lawsuit against Columbia Records. Instead, they switched to Victor for the vast bulk of their recorded output between 1928 and ’32. They concluded their recording career with a series of sessions for Vocalion in October of 1934 (little did they know, apparently, that around that same time, Vocalion was under the same parent company as their forsaken Columbia). After that, the vice grip of the Great Depression forced them to end their musical careers, and seek employment in the construction game. Austin died on January 5, 1959, while Lee survived into the folk revival of the 1960s, when he was persuaded to perform once again, before his own death on February 24, 1981.
Here, the Chattanooga boys, Austin and Lee Allen sing their second take on this old folk ditty with “A New Salty Dog”. This one was originally issued in Victor’s “Old Familiar Tunes” series, number 23514, in 1931. Their old “Salty Dog” was recorded for Columbia in 1927; in my opinion, the “new” one’s better.
A New Salty Dog, recorded November 22, 1930 by the Allen Brothers.
This record is a surprisingly obscure one considering its excellence, even in light of its extraordinary scarcity. A Google search will yield precious few results, and the upload of the only side that’s on YouTube has accrued only around five-hundred views in more than half a decade. Its rarity earned it a spot on Document Records’ “Too Late, Too Late: Newly Discovered Titles and Alternate Takes” series rather than their Hokum Boys or Big Bill Broonzy series proper, and that may be the only commercial reissue it’s ever gotten (I’m not sure). To the few who know of it (mostly a small cadre of record collectors and blues researchers), it is held in high regard as perhaps Big Bill Broonzy’s best record. I had the fortune of being enlightened to its existence some years ago, and the even greater fortune of being able to acquire a copy. I hope to shed a much needed ray of sunshine onto this gem of prewar blues guitar, and help get it some of the recognition it deserves.
In 1930, Big Bill Broonzy was under the management of Chicago “race music” impresario Lester Melrose, and playing good-time music with Georgia Tom and Frank Brasswell (or Braswell, a.k.a. “The Western Kid”) as the “Hokum Boys” (a mantle originally used by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red). Broonzy hadn’t recorded since his earliest, somewhat poorly received “Big Bill and Thomps” Paramount sessions of 1927 and ’28. Among the tunes recorded by Broonzy and the Hokum Boys were (fittingly) hokum titles like “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing” and “Eagle Riding Papa” (both of which were later covered by Milton Brown), urban blues novelties like “Mama’s Leavin’ Town”, and fast guitar rags like “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”. On the rags, Frank Brasswell’s flatpicked rhythm combined with Bill’s adept fingerpicking to make musical magic. The trio, occasionally including Delta blues man Arthur Petties, first recorded in New York for the American Record Corporation in various configurations and under various names, including “Sammy Sampson” for Bill’s solo work. Next they traveled to Richmond, Indiana to cut several sides for the Starr Piano Company’s Champion label, all ones they had made previously for the ARC, this time with Bill’s solo work credited to “Big Bill Johnson”. Those Champions were the last sides to feature Brasswell, who proceeded to drop off the face of the earth. Bill on the other hand would go on to great acclaim.
Champion 16081 was recorded on May 2, 1930 in Richmond, Indiana. The Hokum Boys are Big Bill Broonzy (recording for the Starr Piano Co. as “Big Bill Johnson”) and Frank Brasswell on guitars. It sold a total of 959 copies, of which only a handful are known to exist today. As such, it is listed in the “Rarest 78s” section of 78 Quarterly (No. 6), and while the total number of existing copies was not estimated at the time, a current estimate places the number at “fewer than ten known copies.” More popular versions of both tunes were recorded for the American Record Corporation the previous month (and both, in my opinion, are not near as good as these). There is some debate as to the correct playback speed for these recordings, with suggestions from my esteemed colleagues Mr. Russ Shor of Vintage Jazz Mart and Mr. Pete Whelan ranging from the standard 78.26 RPM to 83 RPM. Based on an E chord on guitar in standard tuning, my best estimate would be that they should play at approximately 80 RPM, to which I’ve set the transfers posted herein.
First up, Bill and Frank get hot on Broonzy’s classic rag composition “Saturday Night Rub” with a performance described by blues guitar teacher Woody Mann as “one of the most hard-driving rag tunes ever recorded.” Midway through, Bill utters those immortal words, “I’m gonna play this guitar tonight from A to Z!”
Saturday Night Rub, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.
“Pig Meat Strut” on the “B” side is perhaps my favorite guitar instrumental (though there’s some stiff competition from Blind Blake, William Moore, Bayless Rose, Frank Hutchison, and others). Bill and Frank’s “Famous Hokum Boys” version of the rag for the ARC, recorded a little less than a month before this one, is often hailed as one of his best (I say phooey), but it sounds like a hot mess compared to this masterpiece! The riffs in “Pig Meat Strut” were used in a number of Broonzy and Brasswell’s recordings of this era, and later served as the basis for Big Bill’s popular “Hey Hey” in 1951. Interestingly, a nearly identical melody was also used by Texas blues man Little Hat Jones in his “Kentucky Blues”, recorded only a month after this one, though any actual connection between the two is unknown to me.
Man, did they get in the groove and how!
Pig Meat Strut, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.
My sincere apologies for the long delay in posting here, I was preoccupied with other matters and couldn’t find the time nor the inspiration to come up with anything good to say. But, in the words of Douglas MacArthur, I have returned, and I will do my best to keep things moving along once again, starting with this rather obscure and mysterious jazz record.
The overwhelming bulk of material commonly seen on the Grey Gull labels (Grey Gull, Radiex, Madison, Van Dyke, etc.) consists of relatively uninteresting popular songs and old standards by singers or their own studio band, usually released under pseudonyms. That isn’t to say they’re not good, I’m personally quite fond of the Grey Gull studio band with their wild and unusual arrangements, they’re just not terribly thrilling. However, don’t be fooled, there are a few exceptional jazz gems to be found on those labels. Many of these “sleeper” jazz tunes occupy the “B” side of popular songs. We previously heard Cliff Jackson’s Krazy Kats play their unbelievably hot “Horse Feathers” on the back of an ordinary dimestore rendition of “Confessin’ (That I Love You)”. This disc falls into the same category, featuring a hit pop song on the “A” side, and hot jazz on the reverse.
The “A” side of Madison 6002 was recorded in November of 1930, the “B” side was recorded on January 17, 1930, both in New York. The first side features a standard Grey Gull studio band, while the flip is a little more interesting.
The “Cosmopolitan Dance Players” version of “The Little Things in Life”, featuring a vocal by Irving Kaufman, is really quite nice, certainly nothing to complain about. A fine rendition of a fine Irving Berlin tune.
The Little Things in Life, recorded November 1930 by the Cosmopolitan Dance Players.
On the reverse, a different hot band plays “The Rackett”. It is generally accepted that the personnel of the “Levee Syncopators” is unknown, aside from the tune’s composer Claude Austin, who likely serves as pianist. Brian Rust listed it as a studio group with Mike Mosiello and Andy Sannella, though the style doesn’t fit with theirs, and that hypothesis has often been dismissed. At least one source suggests that it (along with several other hot and unknown Grey Gull bands) may have been made up of Walter Bennett on trumpet, Alberto Socarras on alto sax, Walter Edwards on clarinet and tenor sax, Austin on piano, and an unknown banjo player, similar to the lineups of Bennett’s Swamplanders and Gerald Clark’s Night Owls around the same time. Listening to other sides featuring those musicians, it sounds plausible, but I cannot confirm one way or the other with any degree of certainty. With Grey Gull’s ledgers presumably no longer in existence, it will likely remain shrouded in mystery.
The Rackett, recorded January 17, 1930 by the Levee Syncopators.