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.

Conqueror 8066 – Johnny Marvin – 1932

The days of the Great Depression, in spite of the stalled economy, proved to be anything but a time devoid of happening, for times of unrest and discontent always seem to push men to action.

One such action took place on the nation’s capital, during the summer of 1932; thousands of down-on-their-luck veterans of the Great War and their supporters marched on the capitol to demand the government pay their bonuses for their service in the war, which they were not scheduled to receive until 1945.  Dubbed the “Bonus Army”, the protestors built up a Hooverville along the banks of the Anacostia river.  The legislators debated how to respond to the veterans’ plea, but ultimately denied them their bonus.  The Bonus Army’s struggle reached its climax on July 28, 1932, when a riot broke out, resulting in two men being shot and killed by police.  In response, President Hoover called in the Army to “surround the affected area and clear it without delay,” so Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded a contingent of five-hundred infantrymen and six tanks against the protestors, and, despite Hoover’s subsequent order to stop the assault, forced the veterans and their families out of the camp with tear gas, MacArthur claiming that the Bonus Army had been taken over by communists plotting to overthrow the federal government.  The Bonus Army reconvened on Washington following Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, and the new administration provided more favorable results, compromising with the veterans by offering them jobs in the CCC, or a free ride back home.  Most of them took the job.

Needless to say, a sizable fraction of Americans were outraged by the attack on their own war veterans, and the media came out in support of the “forgotten man”, paying them tribute in films like Gold Diggers of 1933.  On this record, the “Ukulele Ace” Johnny Marvin sings in a “citybilly” style what is most certainly the first song dedicated to the Bonus Army, and probably among the earliest American protest songs on record.

Conqueror 8066 was recorded in New York City on July 28, 1932—the very same day the Bonus Army conflict reached its climax—by Johnny Marvin, who accompanies himself on guitar.  Roy Smeck plays steel guitar, switching to banjo on the “B” side.

Johnny Marvin sings out in support of the dejected veterans on “I’m The Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1” on the first side of this record.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Marvin concludes his protest song on the reverse with “I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2”.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Vocalion 3567 – Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians – 1937

Erskine Hawkins in 1936 or earlier, pictured in the 1942 Victor and Bluebird Catalog.

Right up there in the pantheon of great jazz trumpeters resides the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, whose popular recordings helped to define the Swing Era.

Erskine Ramsay Hawkins was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 26, 1914, named for local industrialist Erskine Ramsay, who promised to open bank accounts for boys named in his honor.  He attended Birmingham’s Industrial High School and played trumpet in the band under director Fess Whately before graduating to the State Teachers College.  There, he led the ‘Bama State Collegians, with whom he later traveled to New York to embark on his recording career.  Hawkins cut his first two records on July 20, 1936 for Vocalion, debuting with “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem”.  Thereafter, he returned to the Vocalion studio four times, recording four sides at each session, resulting in a total of twenty.  He also secured a gig as house band at Harlem’s renowned Savoy Ballroom, alternating with Chick Webb’s orchestra, an arrangement which lasted a decade.  Billed as the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, as his popularity climbed, he was signed by the RCA Victor Company in 1938 to record for their Bluebird label, a fruitful arrangement that resulted in prolific recordmaking and numerous successes, including his own “Tuxedo Junction” in 1939—most famously covered by Glenn Miller’s orchestra—and “Tippin’ In” in 1945.  He remained with RCA Victor, eventually graduating to their flagship Victor label, until 1950, after which he moved to Decca’s budget label Coral.  After the conclusion of the Swing Era following World War II, like so many of his contemporaries, Hawkins’ fame began to wind down, but he remained active as a musician.  From the 1960s until the end of his career, he led the house orchestra at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  Erskine Hawkins died on November 11, 1993 at his home in New Jersey.

Vocalion 3567 was recorded on April 19, 1937 in New York City.  The ‘Bama State Collegians are Erskine Hawkins, Wilbur Bascomb, Marcellus Green, and Sam Lowe on trumpets, Edward Sims and Robert Range on trombones, William Johnson and Jimmy Mitchelle on alto saxes, Paul Bascomb on tenor sax, Haywood Henry on clarinet and baritone sax, Avery Parrish on piano, William McLemore on guitar, Leemie Stanfield on string bass, and James Morrison on drums.

First up, the ‘Bama State Collegians play a swinging orchestration of the Stephen Foster standard “The Old Folks at Home”, here given the familiar title “‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River”.

‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

On the flip, they play an outstanding jazz rendition of the 1921 Henry Creamer and Turner Layton composition “Dear Old Southland”, quite probably my personal favorite swing side.  Brian Rust notes that this piece was arranged by trumpeter Sam Lowe, and I suspect the former side was as well, though not noted as such.

Dear Old Southland, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.