Champion 16081 – Hokum Boys – 1930

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 of 78 Quarterly ranging from the standard 78.26 RPM to 83 RPM.  Based on an E chord on a 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.

Madison 6002 – Cosmopolitan Dance Players/Levee Syncopators – 1930

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

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

The Rackett, recorded January 17, 1930 by the Levee Syncopators.

Columbia 2183-D – Charles (Buddy) Rogers “America’s Boyfriend” – 1930

August 13 marks the birthday of actor, jazz musician, and occasional bandleader Charles “Buddy” Rogers, known for a period as “America’s Boyfriend.”  Though his main claim to fame was as an actor, Rogers made a fair number of records throughout the 1930s, of which this one was the first.

Charles Edward Rogers was born in Kansas on August 13, 1904.  After attending the University of Kansas, “Buddy” wound up in Hollywood by the middle part of the 1920s, where he began his acting career.  His greatest fame came in 1927, only shortly after his career had begun, when he appeared in Wings, with Richard Arlen and Clara Bow, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Also in 1927, Rogers had a success with Mary Pickford in My Best Girl, which marked the beginning of a relationship that saw Rogers and Pickford marry ten years later, after her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks fell apart.  The two remained married until Pickford’s death in 1979, and the couple adopted two children.  The peak of Rogers’ popularity coincided with the rise of talkies, and he was most prolific from 1928 through 1933, making only sporadic film appearances into the 1950s and 1960s.  In addition to his acting, Rogers played a number of instruments, primarily trombone, and in the 1930s made a series of phonograph records, starting in 1930 with four songs he recorded for Columbia, with a hot accompaniment.  In 1932, he fronted a dance band, the “California Cavaliers”, for Victor, and led a swing band in 1938, recording for the American Record Corporation.  In the second World War, Rogers served as a flight instructor for the United States Navy.  Following Mary Pickford’s death in 1979, Rogers married real estate agent philanthropist Beverly Ricondo in 1981.  Buddy Rogers died in 1999 at the age 94.

Columbia 2183-D was recorded in New York City on February 27 and March 4, 1930.  Buddy Rogers’ outstanding accompaniment includes Tommy Dorsey on trumpet, Charlie Butterfield on trombone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto sax, Adrian Rollini on bass sax, Bruce Yantis on violin, Frank Signorelli on piano, Carl Kress on guitar, and Stan King on drums on the first side.  On the second side, the band is made up of Bob Effros on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, possibly Pete Pumiglio on alto sax, Ben Selvin on violin, possibly Frank Signorelli on piano Carl Kress on guitar, and possibly Joe Tarto on string bass.  Both songs are from the motion picture Safety in Numbers.

First, Buddy Rogers sings the rather humorous “(I’d Like to Be) A Bee in Your Boudoir”, with a hot accompaniment.

(I'd Like to Be) A Bee in Your Boudoir

(I’d Like to Be) A Bee in Your Boudoir, recorded February 27, 1930 by Charles (Buddy) Rogers.

On the reverse, he introduces “My Future Just Passed”, which would become something of a standard, its own popularity most certainly outstripping that of the movie from which it originated.

My Future Just Passed

My Future Just Passed, recorded March 5, 1930 by Charles (Buddy) Rogers.

Melotone M 12052 – “Happy” Dixon’s Clod Hoppers – 1930

It’s no secret that I’m fond of folk and country songs adapted to jazz and dance arrangements (see Casey Jones, Hand Me Down My Walkin’ Cane/She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain, another Casey Jones), and this new arrival to my collection fits squarely in that mold.  I’ve always found the material on many of these early issues of Melotone records interesting, and looking through the discography, a few records by “‘Happy’ Dixon’s Clod Hoppers” particularly intrigued me.  Was it a country band or a dance band playing country music a la Paul Tremaine (as was apparently a passing fad around 1930).  No transfers of any of their records seemed to be available, and little information on the group seemed to exist, so I’d been keeping an eye out for one of their for quite a while.  This copy having fallen into my possession, I’m happy to finally be able to hear it, and now all of you can too.

Melotone M 12057 was recorded on October 27, 1930 in New York City by “Happy” Dixon’s Clod Hoppers, actually a pseudonym for Harry Reser’s Six Jumping Jacks with vocals by Tom Stacks, and most likely with Bill Wirges at the piano.

The first side is a fine fox trot rendition of the pseudo cowboy ballad “When the Bloom is On the Sage”, punctuated with Harry Reser’s famous banjo and an accordion near the end lends a Western touch.

When the Bloom is On the Sage

When the Bloom is On the Sage, recorded October 27, 1930 by “Happy” Dixon’s Clod Hoppers.

The flip-side is a little hotter, with a fast paced novelty arrangement of Henry Whitter’s famous “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97”, made popular by Vernon Dalhart in 1924.  In this version, specific reference is made to “Steve” Broady, the engineer of the Southern Railway 1102 pulling the Old 97 “Fast Mail” when it departed Monroe, Virginia on September 27, 1903, bound for Spencer, North Carolina.  As the song tells, the Old 97 never made it to Spencer, derailing on a trestle near Danville, Virginia as a result of Engine 1102’s excessive speed.  Unlike Steve Broady, Engine 1102 survived the accident, and was still in service when this side was recorded in 1930.

The Wreck On the Southern Old 97

The Wreck On the Southern Old 97, recorded October 27, 1930 by “Happy” Dixon’s Clod Hoppers.

Okeh 41403 – Casa Loma Orchestra – 1930

Before the swing era commenced, you could get an earful of the burgeoning genre from a number of bands.  One was Fletcher Henderson’s band, one of the earliest to start swinging music.  Another one was the Casa Loma Orchestra, who played swing outright as early as 1930.  Today, on the 110th 116th birthday of leader Glen Gray, we’ll hear from them.

The Casa Loma Orchestra got its start in 1927 in Detroit as the Orange Blossoms, managed by Jean Goldkette.  After an eight month gig at the Casa Loma Hotel in Toronto, they became known as the Casa Loma Orchestra, though they were not actually a house band at the hotel.  They first began recording in 1929 for Okeh, with ultra-modern arrangements by band member Gene Gifford.  The band incorporated in 1930, with all members as part-owners, and they ran a tight ship.  In the early years, they were fronted by Henry Biagini, but Glen Gray assumed the spot later on.  Switching to Brunswick, then to Decca, they became one of the leading bands in the United States by the start of swing era, and held that position into the 1940s.  After the close of the swing era, the Casa Loma Orchestra continued to play into the early 1960s, mostly remaking swing hits in hi-fi on Capitol Records.

Okeh 41403 was recorded February 11, 1930 in New York City.  The Casa Loma Orchestra consists of Hank Biagini directing Joe Hostetter, Fred Martinez, and Bobby Jones on trumpet, Pee Wee Hunt and Billy Rauch on trombone, Glen Gray and Ray Eberle on alto sax, Pat Davis on tenor sax, Mel Jenssen on violin, Joe Hall on piano, Gene Gifford on banjo and guitar, Stanley Dennis on string bass, and Tony Briglia on drums.  Both sides were arranged by Gene Gifford.

First up, they play it hot on on “China Girl”.

China Girl

China Girl, recorded February 11, 1930 by the Casa Loma Orchestra.

Next up is an even hotter rendition of Wingy Manone’s “San Sue Strut”.

San Sue Strut

San Sue Strut, recorded February 11, 1930 by the Casa Loma Orchestra.