Victor V-40311 – Stuart Hamblen – 1930

Texas-born singer, songwriter, and storyteller Stuart Hamblen made his greatest hit with gospel songs in the 1950s, but many years earlier he got his start as pioneering singing cowboy, and helped push along the birth of “country and western” music in the days when the genre was narily yet zygotic.

Stuart Hamblen, pictured on a 1930 Victor flyer.

Carl Stuart Hamblen was born on October 20, 1908 in Kellyville, Texas, four miles west of Jefferson, the son of itinerant Methodist preacher Dr. J.H. Hamblen.  As a boy, he spent much of his time traveling with his father on his evangelical pursuits, eventually taking the young Stuart to Hamlin, Texas, out Abilene way.  There he encountered the lore of the western cowboy, and his songs, as well as that of black field hands.  He attended McMurry College with intentions to become a teacher, but instead was drawn to music.  In 1926, Stuart Hamblen began singing on KFYO in Abilene, by some accounts making him radio’s first singing cowboy.  Three years later, he won a talent contest in Dallas, and used the cash prize to secure passage northward to Camden, New Jersey, home of the Victor Talking Machine Company, where he aimed to make some records, following much in the footsteps of his antecedent Carl T. Sprague.

On June 6, 1929, Hamblen made his recording debut with four sides for Victor, singing and strumming his guitar to “The Boy in Blue”, “Drifting Back to Dixie”, “When the Moon Shines Down Upon the Mountain”, and “The Big Rock Candy Mountains, No. 2”.  Thereafter, the young man went west, to California, where he became “Cowboy Joe” on Los Angeles’ KFI.  Meanwhile, he made a further ten sides for Victor through 1931, culminating with his own popular compositions “My Brown-Eyed Texas Rose” and “My Mary”, both later popularly covered by the likes of the Light Crust Doughboys, Milton Brown, and others.  By the middle of the 1930s, Hamblen had formed a western band called his “Covered Wagon Jubilee” (or simply his “Gang”), which at one point included guitarist Wesley Tuttle, and with whom he recorded again, first making a pair of unreleased sides for the American Record Corporation in 1934, before signing with Decca for another nine that year and the next, of which all but one were released.  Those proved to be his last records for nearly a decade, none of which ever seemed to sell very well, and he focused primarily on his radio work.  From the late 1930s through the ’40s, Hamblen also appeared in several motion pictures, several of which starred Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne.  In 1938, he ran for Congress in California, as a Democrat.  During World War II, he wrote and sang some patriotic songs, and recorded again for Russian spy Boris Morros’ American Recording Artists (ARA) label in 1944.

At the height of his singing cowboy fame, Stuart Hamblen built up quite a reputation as a hard drinker, gambler, and all-around hellraiser.  He’d get drunk, shoot out streetlights, and get sent to jail, only to have his sponsors bail him out so he could be on the radio the next day.  But that changed when Billy Graham came to Los Angeles on his first Crusade in 1949.  Hamblen’s wife persuaded him to attend the revival, and the reverend turned his life around.  Hamblen experienced a religious awakening, and announced the very next day on his radio program that he was “hitting the sawdust trail.”  From then on out, he dedicated his work to sacred music, composing “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and “This Ole House”, and recording far more prolifically—and successfully—than ever before, with sessions for Columbia, RCA Victor, and Coral.  He also prominently supported the temperance movement, and, after his radio show was canceled because he refused to do advertise beer, he renewed his political ambitions in 1952 with a presidential run on the Prohibition Party ticket, garnering 72,949 votes.  He also remained associated with Billy Graham, who credited much of his success to Hamblen’s timely conversion.  Hamblen was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and was honored with “Stuart Hamblen Day” Los Angeles on February 13, 1976 and later with “Stuart Hamblen Days” in Jefferson, Texas.  Following a battle with brain cancer, Stuart Hamblen died at the age of eighty on March 8, 1989.

Victor V-40311 was recorded in Hollywood, California on August 21, 1930.  It was released on October 17th of that year, and sold a total of 1,826 copies.  Hamblen is accompanied by his own guitar, as well as unidentified players on steel guitar and fiddle.

Hamblen sounds rather like Ernest Tubb (who would not make a record for another six years) as he sings and yodels his own composition “Sailor’s Farewell”.

Sailor’s Farewell, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.

On the reverse, he sings a cowboy’s tale of heartache on another original composition: “By the Sleepy Rio Grande”.

By the Sleepy Rio Grande, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.

Vocalion 03139 & 03206 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1935

Bob Wills, pictured in the 1940 Okeh Country Dance and Folk catalog.

Fresh from Cain’s Dance Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it is Old Time Blues’ pleasure to bring you a program with Bob Wills and his famous Texas Playboys!

Bob Wills (then known as Jim Rob) made his first recordings for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1929, a pair of fiddle solos accompanied by guitarist Herman Arnspiger, but none were released and remain unheard.  It would be three years before Wills recorded again, this time with Milton Brown as a member of the original Light Crust Doughboys.  Still that lone 1932 session only yielded two recordings which didn’t sell too well under the Depression conditions, and both Wills and Brown parted ways with the Doughboys soon after.  It wouldn’t be for another three years that Wills began his recording career in earnest.  By that time, he had taken his fiddle band to Tulsa to make a name for himself as leader of the “Texas Playboys” at Cain’s Ballroom, and along the way had added a horn section and drums to the ensemble.  When the American Record Corporation came to Dallas in 1935, the Playboys returned to Texas.  On September 23, 1935, Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded eight titles, starting with “Osage Stomp”, borrowing from the Memphis Jug Band’s “Memphis Shakedown” and “Rukus Juice and Chittlin'”, followed by twelve more the following day.  On the third day, Wills returned to the studio solo to cut four fiddle solos backed on guitar by Sleepy Johnson.  This time, as the record industry was beginning to recover with the beginning of the swing era, his records sold many more copies, and the Texas Playboys traveled to Chicago almost exactly one year later for another three sessions. producing thirty-one more sides, including the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Soon the Playboys skyrocketed to national fame, drawing larger crowds than Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey with hits like “New San Antonio Rose”, and making a string of successful motion picture appearances, ultimately winning him the title “King of Western Swing” (that Spade Cooley never deserved it if you ask me).

Vocalion 03139 and 03206 were recorded in Dallas, Texas on September 24, 1935, the second day of the Texas Playboys’ first session.  In the band are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Art Haynes on fiddles, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto saxophone, Sleepy Johnson and Herman Arnspiger on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar and guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Al Stricklin on piano, Thomas “Son” Lansford on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.

To start us out, the Playboys swing a hot instrumental: “Black and Blue Rag”, with Bob addressing his Playboys by name as they take their instrumental solos.

Black and Blue Rag, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the back of 03139, Bob sings the vocal himself on the Mississippi Sheiks’ blues standard “Sittin’ On Top of the World”.

Sittin’ On Top of the World, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Tommy Duncan joins the show on “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, giving a wild Emmett Miller-style yodeling performance.

I Ain’t Got Nobody, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Finally, Duncan sings again on the Playboys’ rendering of the popular song of one year prior, “Who Walks in When I Walk Out”, surely one of the hottest, wildest, most driving western swing performances ever recorded.  It’s also the first time we hear Bob holler those immortal words “take it away, Leon!”

Who Walks in When I Walk Out, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Hollywood No. 1 – Roll Grane – 1938

Something about the Great Depression must have given folks World’s Fair fever, for at least five different expositions were held in the United States in the 1930s.  I can’t say I blame them either, a trip to a World’s Fair would probably do a lot to lift my spirits right now, and I’m not even experiencing economic ruin, severe drought, and another world war on the horizon, but I digress.  It seems that these fairs got people to singing, and some of them even had official records released in their honor, to be sold among the countless trinkets and souvenirs that could be brought home from one.  Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition commissioned two pieces, one a pop song by local bandleader Art Kassel, the other a march by the renowned John Philip Sousa—his last composition, in fact.  The 1939 New York World’s Fair got George and Ira Gershwin to pen a song in its honor prior to the former’s untimely demise.

The Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco was not as grandiose an affair, but it still managed to attract the attention of songwriters.  One such individual was Mr. Roll Grane of Oakland, California.  A California native and member of the California Contented Club, which was evidently a heavy promoter of the San Francisco fair, in 1938 he composed a ditty titled “I’m Off to California in the Morning” to bring attention to the event, and to San Francisco’s bridges.  A competent guitarist and vaudevillian vocalist with an eccentric style, Grane himself performed his song for the radio, and copies of the sheet music were distributed around Oakland at conventions in the year preceding the Exposition.  Though the fair attracted significant crowds, Grane himself fell victim to obscurity, and details regarding his life and times are virtually non-existent.

Hollywood No. 1 (matrix number “H5”) was recorded on September 19, 1938, possibly in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, California, and was pressed by the Allied Phonograph and Record Mfg. Co.  It is a single sided record bearing a decorative etching on the reverse.  On it, Roll Grane sings and accompanies himself on guitar; his performance is announced at the beginning by an unknown individual.

Grane sings his own “I’m Off to California in the Morning”—”telling about our wonderful bridges… and exposition”—in a fashion sounding fresh off the vaudeville stage, and the song itself resembles a folksy take on the same sort of theme as the Century of Progress Exposition’s official song “In 1933”, advising listeners to head to California to visit the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition.  This song is Mr. Grane’s sole claim to any sort of lasting fame, and it is probably the only recording he ever made.

I’m Off to California in the Morning, recorded September 19, 1938 by Roll Grane.

Broadway 8323 – Bud Kelly – 1932

Rex Kelley, a.k.a. Buck Nation, pictured on the cover of Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, circa 1935.

It’s time now to pay a visit to the Great Depression days of guitar strumming cowboy singers in ten-gallon hats and Mexican radio stations blasting their music thousands of miles past the border into United States, free from the auspices of the Federal Radio Commission.  Many of those countless, fairly small time folk singers made their fame on the radio and were never recorded for posterity, and of those who were, many only recorded sparsely.  Falling into the latter category is the performer who appears on the record presented herein: the one relatively prolific but now long forgotten Buck Nation.

Buck was born Rex Frederick Kelley on September 12, 1910 in the American badlands: Burke, South Dakota, a settlement of about three-hundred situated in-between the Missouri River and the Rosebud Indian Reservation.  Dropping the “e” from his last name, Kelly went to traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin early in 1932 to make his debut recordings for the faltering Paramount Records, resulting in six sides.  Adopting the stage name “Buck Nation”, he returned to the studio three years later, this time for Decca, resulting in twenty-two recordings made in January and February of 1935, some solo and others in duet with fellow singing cowboy Ray Whitley, plus several more playing guitar behind Tex Ritter.  Likely around the same time, he and his wife Louise—who performed with him as “Tex Ann”, and later divorced him and married Merle Travis—published a collection of songs titled Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, which included many of the songs he recorded.  Sometime in the 1930s or ’40s, he was one of the numerous cowboy singers to appear on “border blaster” radio, on XEPN in Piedras Negras, Coahuila.  He recorded another ten sides for Bluebird in 1940 and ’41 with Ed and Lloyd West as a member of a Sons of the Pioneers style vocal group and string ensemble called the Airport Boys, which predicted the styles of folksinging groups of the 1950s such as the Kingston Trio.  During World War II, Kelley served as a corporal in the United States Army.  After the war’s end, he recorded once again as a member of the the Six Westernaires with Porky Freeman and Slim Duncan, appearing on the Black and White label in 1946.  Rex Kelley reportedly suffered from a drinking problem, and he died on January 11, 1965.

Broadway 8323 was recorded in January or February of 1932 at the New York Recording Laboratories’ studio in Grafton, Wisconsin by Rex Kelly, accompanying himself on guitar.  It was the fifteenth to last record issued in Broadway’s 8000 “hillbilly” series, and operations at the NYRL ceased around six months later.  Being from 1932 and a Paramount product to boot, it can’t have sold too many copies

On the “A” side, Kelly sings an amiable rendition of a traditional cowboy ballad which you may recognize as the familiar “Streets of Laredo”, under the title that it was given by its purported writer Frank H. Maynard: “Cowboy’s Lament”.  The ballad evolved from the British folk song “The Unfortunate Rake”, the same source that gave way to the famous “St. James Infirmary”, with which it has a degree of lyrical similarity.

Cowboy’s Lament, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.

On the “B” side, he sings “Broncho [sic] Mustang”, a song that bears more than a little topical resemblance to its contemporary “Strawberry Roan”, which Kelly recorded previously at the same session.  His style of delivery leads me to believe Mr. Kelly drew considerable inspiration from Frank Crumit (coupled with the fact that he also recorded Crumit’s “Down By the Railroad Tracks”).

Broncho Mustang, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.

Decca 5201 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1936

Seems it’s seldom these days that I post any music just for music’s sake, just to celebrate the greatness of a song, rather than to commemorate some occasion or happening.  I’ve already quite thoroughly expounded upon the life and time of Milton Brown—the Father of Western Swing—so I feel I needn’t go into much more detail about that here, you may go read it on that page if you so desire.  But there’s still plenty more to say about the many records Brown made in his short two year recording career, and goodness knows there’s so much more to hear.  So herein is one of my own favorites of those many, I hope you’ll enjoy it as well, and I also hope to be able to offer some anecdotes and shed some light that may perhaps not have been shed otherwise.

Though his recording career only spanned from 1934 to 1936 (excluding the Fort Worth Doughboys session in ’32), in four sessions, two for Bluebird and two for Decca, spread over a week’s worth of days, Milton Brown managed to cut a total of one-hundred-and-three sides.  Decca 5201 comes from the first and second days of Brown’s last session, his second for Decca.   It was recorded at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 3rd and 4th, 1936.  The Musical Brownies at this point in time included Milton Brown singing and leading Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner—the latter a new addition to the band for this session—on fiddles, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on banjo, Bob Dunn on steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.

Firstly, the Musical Brownies get hotter than anything on “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing”, one of several tunes Milton lifted from the Hokum Boys’ repertoire, some others being “Easy Ridin’ Papa” and “Nancy Jane”—though it was written and originally recorded by mandolinist Al Miller in 1929.  To set the record straight (pun intended), one “Greaseman” has evidently propagated preposterous misinformation that the lyric in this song is “Georgia boy, somebody’s been using that thing,” while it is in fact “sure as you’re born, somebody’s been using that thing,” albeit slurred to sound like “sho’s yo’ bo’n.”  This one is a serious contender against “Garbage Man Blues” to win the title of my personal favorite Milton Brown song.

Somebody’s Been Using That Thing, recorded March 3, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

On the “B” side, Milton sings a respectable pop vocal on Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Pierre Norman’s jazz standard “When I Take My Sugar to Tea”.  Listening to this tune, one wonders if Brown was familiar with the work of the Boswell Sisters.

When I Take My Sugar to Tea, recorded March 4, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.