Some people cast aspersions on the quality of Bumble Bee Slim’s body of work, declaring it to be inferior, or “unbluesworthy”. I can’t speak for his entire body of work, because I’ve only listened to a fraction of it, but I think both these sides—particularly the latter—are quite excellent blues sides of the more urbane variety epitomized by Leroy Carr, which proved to be the most commercially profitable style in the Great Depression days than the country blues most coveted by collectors today (and I can’t claim to not be a part of that bunch).
Amos Easton was born in Brunswick, Georgia on May 7, 1905. He learned to play the guitar, and ran off to join the circus at the age of fifteen. Winding up in the Midwest in the early days of the Great Depression, Easton made his debut recordings under the name “Bumble Bee Slim” in Grafton, Wisconsin for the faltering Paramount Records in October of 1931, resulting in six sides backed backed by slide guitar, including an adaptation of Memphis Minnie’s “Bumble Bee”—from which he presumably derived his stage name—as “Honey Bee Blues”. Drawing a great deal of inspiration from popular blues duo Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Easton recorded again half a year later, this time for Vocalion, producing the popular “B and O Blues” as well as another rendition of Minnie’s “Bumble Bee”, this time under the title “Queen Bee Blues”. From then on, Bumble Bee Slim recorded in earnest with Vocalion from 1932 to ’37, Decca and its subsidiary Champion from 1934 to 1936, and Bluebird in 1935 and ’36 (as “Amos”). Though able to play guitar himself, Easton did not play on many of his records, and was instead accompanied by a variety of guitarist and pianists, including at various times Big Bill Broonzy and Peetie Wheatstraw. After concluding his business with Vocalion, Easton went home to Georgia. A few years later, he relocated to California, a place in which he had expressed great interest in a number of his songs, and in the middle of the 1940s, Slim began recording again on burgeoning West Coast blues and jazz labels. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he recorded several albums, but could not achieve the success he had known in the 1930s. Amos Easton died in Los Angeles, California on June 8, 1968.
Decca 7126 was recorded on July 7 and 8, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. Bumble Bee Slim’s outstanding accompaniment appears to consist of Dot Rice on piano and Scrapper Blackwell (recording for Decca as “Frankie Black”) on guitar.
On the “A” side, Bumble Bee Slim demonstrates an apparent lack of geographical knowledge with the opening verse “the Smoky Mountains is way out in the west.” He delivers “Smoky Mountain Blues” in a style very reminiscent of his inspiration and contemporary Leroy Carr.
Smoky Mountain Blues, recorded July 7, 1935 by Bumble Bee Slim.
On the “B” side Easton sings one of his most popular numbers, his first re-worked version of Buddy Moss’s “Oh Lordy Mama” as “Hey Lawdy Mama”. The song was later adapted as swing by Count Basie in 1938, and subsequently covered by Louis Armstrong, Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, and others. Easton later recorded the song at least twice more with the titles “Meet Me in the Bottom”, accompanied by Peetie Wheatstraw, and “Meet Me at the Landing”, both in 1936. The guy just couldn’t stop singing it. I prefer this version myself. It is worth distinguishing this song from the earlier “Hey Lawdy Mama—The France Blues” recorded by Long “Cleve” Reed and Little Harvey Hull (The Down Home Boys) for Black Patti in 1927; the two songs share very little in common.
Hey Lawdy Mama, recorded July 8, 1935 by Bumble Bee Slim.
Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers. From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade. But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers. The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter. Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade. Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts. Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel. There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.
Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others. The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th. B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569. The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.
On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively. First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.
Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin. The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.
Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist). This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.
Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”. Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).
Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
Wilbert Lee O’Daniel was born in Malta, Ohio on March 11, 1890. When he was a baby, the family relocated to Kansas following the death of the O’Daniel patriarch. Lee entered the flour industry at the age of eighteen, and soon went on the move, eventually settling in Fort Worth, where he began working for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company of Saginaw, Texas as sales manager. In 1928, O’Daniel became the company’s director of advertising in the newly emerging medium of radio broadcasting. About three years later, he hired the Wills Fiddle Band, at the time consisting of fiddler Bob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, to perform on the air as the Light Crust Doughboys. Not a fan of their hillbilly music however, O’Daniel canceled their show a couple weeks later. Fans of the show were not pleased, and soon the Light Crust Doughboys were back on the air. By 1933, the original Doughboys had parted ways, and a new lineup of musicians had taken over the moniker, going on to achieve great radio acclaim. In 1935, O’Daniel was fired from his position with the Burrus Mill, and he went on to found his own flour company, the W. Lee O’Daniel Flour Company, manufacturer of Hillbilly Flour. To promote the new product, “Pappy” O’Daniel formed a new radio band: the Hillbilly Boys, which included his two sons Mike and Pat. Broadcasting from WBAP in Fort Worth and “border blaster” XEPN in Piedras Negras, Mexico, the Hillbilly Boys also found considerable fame with their madcap radio theme “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”.
Come 1938, W. Lee O’Daniel registered to run for Governor of Texas—his platform, the ten commandments, and his campaign slogan, the golden rule. He took his Hillbilly Boys on the campaign trail and drew huge crowds. Winning the election, he promised no sales tax or poll tax, an end to capital punishment, and an old-age pension. He delivered on none. Nonetheless, he proved popular enough and was reelected in 1940. Shortly into his second term as Governor, O’Daniel set his sights on a more prestigious and powerful position, the United States Senate. When Senator Morris Sheppard died in 1941, O’Daniel appointed the eighty-six year old son of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson Houston, to fill his empty seat in the interim. When Houston himself died several months later, O’Daniel defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in a special election and took the seat for himself. When the next election came around, he asserted that his opponents, former governors Dan Moody and James V. Allred, were part of a communist conspiracy against him, alienating himself from some of his supporters, but nonetheless claiming the election. In 1944, he campaigned for the Texas Regulars, opposing Roosevelt’s fourth term. Serving ineffectively for eight years, O’Daniel declined to run for reelection in 1948—citing the hopelessness of saving America from the commies (though in reality he had simply embarrassed too many of his constituents)—and was replaced by “Landslide Lyndon”. Thereafter, he retired to a ranch outside Fort Worth, making several ill-fated political comebacks in the 1950s and claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education was a communist plot. W. Lee O’Daniel died on May 12, 1969 in Dallas, at the age of 79.
Vocalion 04727 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on December 3, 1938. The Hillbilly Boys are Mike O’Daniel on fiddle, Bundy Bratcher on the accordion, Kermit Whalen on the steel guitar, Pat O’Daniel on tenor banjo, Leon Huff and Curly Perrin on guitars, and Wallace Griffin on string bass. Huff sings the vocals on both sides.
First: the Hillbilly Boys’ theme song, “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”, really the 1933 song “I Like Mountain Music” with new words added by W. Lee O’Daniel to reflect his floury interests.
Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music), recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.
On the other side, the Hillbilly boys do a swell job swinging the 1927 tune “One Sweet Letter From You”. I bought the record for “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy”, but I do believe I like this one better.
One Sweet Letter from You, recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.
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” in December of 1930, with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”. To complicate matters further, the 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.