Brunswick 7184 – Gene Campbell – 1930

The enigmatic Gene Campbell was among the most exemplary of the Texas blues musicians to record in the beginning of the Great Depression, yet nothing much is known of the elusive guitarist and singer; he had a more prolific recording career than most of his contemporaries, and in fact bears the distinction of being the only guitar-playing country blues singer recorded by Brunswick in Texas (all others were backed by jazz bands), yet all but very few substantial details surrounding his life and times have been lost to time.

An account related in the early 1960s to the esteemed researcher Mack McCormick by fellow Texas blues musician James “Smokestack” Tisdom—a protégé of Campbell’s—suggests that the singer’s proper name was Willie Gene Campbell and that he hailed from San Antonio and was born around 1902.  Lyrics such as “born in Texas, raised in Texas too” in his “Western Plain Blues” and mention of “Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio” in his “Don’t Leave Me Here Blues”, further pointed to Campbell’s roots in the Lone Star State.  Queries of public records have as yet yielded no conclusive information regarding Campbell.  He seems to have spent at least a portion of his life drifting across the region of his origin, and it is possible that he at one time belonged, in some respect, to the loose group of songsters and blues moaners known to hang around the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that included the likes of Ramblin’ Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Huddie Ledbetter.  It was in Dallas that Gene Campbell made his first two recordings in November of 1929, beginning his rather brief recording career with commanding performances of “Mama, You Don’t Mean Me No Good No How” and “Bended Knee Blues” (Brunswick 7139).  In his work, he demonstrated a strong and smooth singing voice somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary “Texas” Alexander and an idiosyncratic but deft guitar style echoing that of the influential Lonnie Johnson, that may have employed a flatpick.  Many of his songs dealt with the familiar subject matter of woman troubles, and most shared a similar melody and structure, spiced up with a variety of embellishments.  His first record must have impressed the Brunswick people, because the following year, he traveled to their headquarters in Chicago to cut a further ten sides.  Among those ten recorded at his second session was the two-part “Freight Train Yodeling Blues” (Brunswick 7161), which echoed both the themes and melodies popularized by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, and illustrated Campbell’s variegated repertoire.  When Brunswick returned to Dallas that November, Campbell recorded another four songs.  He returned to Chicago one final time for two days in January of 1931 to make his last eight, resulting in a grand total of twenty-four sides as his recorded legacy, and making him the most prolific of the handful of country blues players to be recorded by Brunswick, and the second most prolific artist in their 7000-series of “race” records, behind only calypsonian Lionel Belasco.  James Tisdom reported that Campbell was still living in the early 1960s and working as a rice farmer in Bay City, but was no longer active as a musician.    Unfortunately, McCormick was not able to locate Campbell if he was indeed still living at that time, and his fate remains undetermined.

Brunswick 7184 was recorded around May of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, at Campbell’s second session.  Gene Campbell sings the blues, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Though you may not be able to read the label, Campbell first sings “Lazy Woman Blues”, imploring his girl that she “must get a job, or [she] must leave.”  The lyrics of this song were closely mirrored seven years later in a song called “Trifling Woman” by Fort Worth blues musician Black Ace (B.K. Turner), further suggesting Campbell’s Texas roots.

Lazy Woman Blues, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

On the reverse, he moans another verse of romantic discontent on the rather morose sounding “Wish I Could Die”.

Wish I Could Die, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

Bluebird B-5775 – Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies – 1934

Milton Brown, during his tenure with the Light Crust Doughboys. Circa 1931.

The fourth of April, 2019, marks a historic occasion, for on this day eighty-five year prior, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies made their debut recordings, and they surely did so with a bang.

Milton Brown first cut a record in Dallas, Texas on February 9, 1932, while still a member of “Pappy” O’Daniel’s original Light Crust Doughboys.  He left that band not long afterward, and started his own, the Musical Brownies, which would gain him considerable renown.  When the Victor record company returned to Texas in April of 1934, Brown and his Brownies traveled to San Antonio for a session at the Texas Hotel.  The Brownies’ musical excellence was demonstrated by their first track, “Brownie’s Stomp”, played masterfully and hotter than anything, and laid down in one take without a hitch.  Thereafter, they submitted a total of seven additional sides to hot wax, including the classics “Four, Five or Six Times” and “Garbage Man Blues”.  The following August, they returned to San Antone and recorded once again for RCA Victor, immortalizing a further ten performances, including blues songs like Memphis Minnie’s “Talking About You” and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Just Sitting On Top of the World”, pop songs like “Girl of My Dreams” and “Loveless Love”, the old-time number “Get Along, Cindy”, and the waltz “Trinity Waltz”.  That session concluded the Brownies engagement with the Victor company; in 1935, they made a longer journey to Chicago, to begin a longer and more fruitful contract with Decca, which lasted until 1937, holding one final session after Milton Brown’s untimely demise the previous year.

Bluebird B-5775 was recorded at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas on April 4, 1934, the first two sides from Brown’s first session with his Musical Brownies.  The Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.  Both are instrumental numbers, so Milton sits them out aside from an occasional holler or shout.

The Brownies’ “Joe Turner Blues”—a different melody than the 1915 W.C. Handy composition, apparently attributed (though both names are misspelled on the label) to the Brownie’s fiddler Cecil Brower and Milton Brown himself—is a superbly orchestrated blues instrumental, beautifully demonstrating their musical talent.  This “Joe Turner Blues” became a standard of Texas string band repertoires and was later recorded in 1937 by the Hi-Flyers and in 1940 by Adolph Hofner and his Texans.

Joe Turner Blues, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

“Brownie’s Stomp” on the other side—their first side recorded—is a real show piece, with hot solos by every Brownie.

Brownie’s Stomp, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

Decca 7340 – Black Ace (B. K. Turner) – 1937

Of all the countless musical artists active before the Second World War, only a fraction were fortunate enough to have their art preserved on records, and an even smaller fraction recorded prolifically, leaving whatever magical music they produced mostly unheard.  That however, does not necessarily imply that those artists who left behind few, if any, recordings were not popular within their own domain.  One such artist who achieved considerable note with audiences in his homeland of Texas, but only left behind a precious few recordings was a peculiar, but quite remarkable, bluesman (and my own fourth personal favorite Texas blues musician) known as the Black Ace.

The man later called the “Black Ace” was born Babe Kyro Lemon Turner on the twenty-first of December, 1907 (some sources state 1905), on his family’s farm in the small settlement of Hughes Springs, deep in the farthest northeast reach of the state of Texas—the same region that brought up the likes of Little Hat Jones and Lead Belly.  He took up playing the guitar sometime in his youth and began playing the blues by the end of the 1920s in the vicinity of his hometown, and teamed up with the younger Andrew “Smokey” Hogg in the decade that followed.   Evidently inspired by Hawaiian-styled blues player Oscar “Buddy” Woods, Turner bought a square-necked National tricone resonator guitar and learned to play steel guitar, using an old medicine bottle as a slide.  In the 1930s, he relocated to Fort Worth and began performing on the radio.  There, he made his first recordings on April 5, 1936: two sides for the American Record Corporation including his eponymous theme song “Black Ace Blues”, from which he adopted the nickname, but both were unissued and are considered lost.  When the Decca record company made a field trip to Dallas early in 1937, Turner recorded again, cutting six sides, all of which were issued this time around (some sources suggest that he traveled to Chicago with Smokey Hogg and Whistling Alex Moore for the session, but they are erroneous).  The resulting three records proved to be the entirety of Black Ace’s pre-war recording career, and he would not record again for twenty-three years.  In spite of his scant recorded legacy, Turner seems to have enjoyed considerable regional popularity; his radio program lasted into up until the outbreak of World War II, and, remarkably for an early blues musician, he boasted a (very brief) motion picture career.  In 1941, Turner had a bit part in Spencer Williams’ race movie The Blood of Jesus, ostensibly portraying himself, first being heard-and-not-seen playing “Golden Slippers Blues”, then appearing as a member of a band performing on the back of a flatbed truck with the devil at the wheel.  He was drafted into the Army in 1943, and continued to play music while in the service, but retired from professional musicianship after returning from the war.  He was coaxed back in front of the microphone in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver to record an album for Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, thus preserving a further seventeen pieces of his repertoire for posterity.  Two years later, he made his second filmed appearance in Samuel Charters’ 1962 documentary The Blues, in which he reprised his theme song “The Black Ace” for the last time.  After suffering from cancer, B.K. Turner died in Fort Worth on November 7, 1972.

Decca 7340 was recorded on February 15, 1937 in Dallas, Texas.  It is the second released of Black Ace’s three records.  B.K. Turner sings and plays his own Hawaiian guitar; he is accompanied by an unidentified rhythm guitar player (possibly Andrew “Smokey” Hogg).

Firstly, the Black Ace plays and sings “You Gonna Need My Help Some Day”, loosely covering Big Bill Broonzy’s “You May Need My Help Some Day” from a year prior—which in turn echoes some elements from Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” of 1935.

You Gonna Need My Help Some Day, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).

On the reverse, he does “Whiskey and Women”, showcasing a bit more of the Black Ace’s Hawaiian-styled blues playing.

Whiskey and Women, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).

Broadway 1482 – Abe McDow and his Band Southern – 1931

The orchestra preserved on this record appears to be something of an enigma.  Once in a blue moon—in only the most dedicated of record collecting and researching circles—the question arises: ” Who is Abe McDow?”  Alas, no definitive answers have ever been uncovered, and even the most dedicated of researchers have been unable to crack the case.

Whatever their story, Abe McDow and his Band Southern cut five recordings—”I Idolize My Baby’s Eyes”, “Shine On Harvest Moon”, “Minnie the Moocher”, “I Apologize”, and “(With You On My Mind I Find) I Can’t Write the Words”—for the New York Recording Laboratories (manufacturers of Paramount records) in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1931, near the last days of the company’s existence.  Presumably, they were a territory dance band, likely touring in the Midwest, as did many of their contemporaries that recorded for Paramount.  Though called the “Band Southern”, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that they did not hail from below the Mason-Dixon Line, but rather adopted the sobriquet to evoke certain images of Dixieland that were so popular at the time—much in the fashion of Henny Hendrickson’s so-called Louisville Serenaders.  Paramount scholar Alex van der Tuuk has tentatively proposed that the orchestra may have hailed from Iowa.  It is also possible that “Abe McDow” was actually “McDowell”—as is reportedly credited on the label of Broadway 1483—and his name was either misprinted or shortened by the people at Paramount (whose competence in record-making was often rather questionable), though research on that name, too, has returned little information.

Broadway 1482 was recorded in November of 1931 in Grafton, Wisconsin.  Regrettably, the personnel of the band is entirely unidentified, aside from vocalists Roy Larsen and Bob Lilley, who presumably make up two-thirds of the trio singing on the “A” side.

First, the Band Southern plays a downright marvelous rendition of that evergreen 1908 vaudeville classic “Shine On Harvest Moon”, one of my personal favorite versions of the ubiquitous melody.

Shine On Harvest Moon, recorded November 1931 by Abe McDow and his Band Southern.

Next, they play a colorful version of Cab Calloway’s big hit, “Minnie the Moocher” (with his name misspelled on the label), using an arrangement remarkably similar to the one played by King Carter and his Royal Orchestra, so I would presume it’s more-or-less a stock arrangement.  It’s a tough call, but I might actually like this one better than Cab’s—it certainly stays true to the song’s lowdown roots.  (“Well it must have been of ‘plat-in-um.’  ‘Cause it says it was of ‘plat-in-um.’  So it must have been of ‘plat-in-um.'”)

Minnie the Moocher, recorded November 1931 by Abe McDow and his Band Southern.

Vocalion 03002 – State Street Boys – 1935

Looking south on State Street in Chicago. Circa 1933.

If there’s one thing I’m particularly fond of, it’s the swinging Lester Melrose-style Chicago blues of the mid-1930s, by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and so many others.  This record is one that I think you’ll find is most befitting of that description.

The State Street Boys (not to be confused with the Jimmy Blythe’s State Street Ramblers) were a studio group that managed to blend modern swing music and country blues.  They cut eight sides for the American Record Corporation in January of 1935, of which three records were issued on Okeh at the very end of their “race” records series (all of which were re-released on Vocalion shortly thereafter), and the last on Vocalion.  The following year, they were reincarnated as the State Street Swingers, with even more jazz in their style.

Vocalion 03002 was recorded on January 10, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois.  It was more-or-less concurrently issued on Okeh 8962.  Personnel for this session is disputed, and differs for each side.  According to the ever-reliable Stefan Wirz’ American Music discographies, both sides feature the talents of Black Bob on piano, and possibly Bill Settles on string bass.  The first side features Carl Martin on guitar and singing and Zeb Wright on fiddle, while the second has Big Bill Broonzy on fiddle and singing and Bill “Jazz” Gillum on harmonica.

“Don’t Tear My Clothes”—seemingly the first recording of the blues standard—is one of my personal favorites, and I consider it to be the definitive version.  Some sources state the vocalist on this side to be Big Bill rather than Carl Martin, and it does sound a bit like Broonzy.  But it also sounds like Carl Martin.  I long believed it to be Broonzy myself (with admittedly very little research into it at the time), but I’ve come around to agree that it sounds more like Martin’s voice and guitar picking.

Don’t Tear My Clothes, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.

On the “B” side, Big Bill (and this time it’s definitely him) sings and plays fiddle on “She Caught the Train”—a great opportunity to hear him on an instrument other than his usual guitar.  The identity of the second (frankly rather bad) vocalist is unknown, but I would imagine that it would have to be one of the other members of the band.

She Caught the Train, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.